Over the last two to three months, the training sessions under the scorching Texas sun have provided one constant for the Houston Dash: team captain Kealia Ohai will gather the group for the final instructions of the day and lead the team in a cool-down session.
Ohai reached a milestone in the 1-1 draw at Chicago last Saturday, confirming her place as a constant presence on the field for Houston. The forward is the first player in club history to reach 50 starts with the organization. This number is not lost on Ohai who has seen a lot of turnover around the league.
“I love Houston. I was drafted here. Things change so much in the league – you’re in and out, and so I feel really lucky to have stayed at such a great franchise and to be able to play for the staff that we have and in BBVA [Compass Stadium] for my third year now,” Ohai said. “It’s awesome [to play for one team through 50 starts] and I want to keep going. I’m really excited about it.”
Managing director Brian Ching emphasized Ohai’s professionalism as the key to reaching this milestone.
“I think 50 starts is a huge accomplishment for any player. It’s a competitive league. I think Kealia has done an extremely good job at taking care of herself, making sure she’s doing the right things, on and off the field, things that result in being injury free, and that’s a huge part of having a long career,” Ching said. “In those 50 games she’s played for us she’s consistently been one of our more dangerous attackers, a lot of that goes to her work ethic and her desire to compete and her desire to win. That’s the type of mentality that we want in our players, and she’s been a great leader for us.”
The 24-year-old transitioned into a defined leadership role this offseason after the departure of its team captains from a year ago and the limited availability of national team players due to preparation for the Olympic Games.
Naturally, Ohai was one of the top candidates for the captain’s armband and head coach Randy Waldrum lauded her ability to unite a group that acquired more than 10 players in the offseason.
“I think she’s now started to grab players, young players and talk to them about their game, and the non-roster players, to get them to understand the process, what it takes to become a pro,” Waldrum said. “I’m very happy to see her starting to get more involved with the team and start to take more players under her wing.”
When asked about her approach to leading the team, Ohai credits her mentor Ella Masar-McLeod for establishing the foundation she inherited and establishing a culture for her to maintain.
“Ella was definitely my biggest mentor coming into the league; it’s really difficult as a rookie to come in. You’re nervous, you don’t know what to expect and I know a lot of teams aren’t nice to their rookies. You have to come in and fight for yourself. Ella was tough. She was harsh at times, but she was always so kind to me, and helped me grow, and feel comfortable enough to be the best player I can be,” Ohai said. “I think the worst environment is one that is toxic and people are so competitive that they’re rude to everyone, and that’s not what Ella was. As our captain, she established a culture here where everyone was kind to each other, and we were competitive and we fought on the field but we worked together to get better. When you look at what a captain should be or what you aspire to accomplish, she set the bar for us.”
Ohai was pleasantly surprised to see Masar-McLeod at Toyota Park last Saturday. The grit and never say quit attitude established by Masar-McLeod was on display in the second half. Ohai finished the game with an assist, her third of the season and the club salvaged its first point on the road since its 2-1 victory over Kansas City in May.
Ohai wants to build on this milestone with a second-half push for the postseason. That push continues on Saturday as the Dash host the Western New York Flash. The first half of this season brought numerous challenges for the club but like the final trot at training, Ohai commits to one constant for the remainder of the season.
“We never give up, you can see that in our season now, we never give up,” Ohai said. “In our first year when it was very difficult and we weren’t winning, we just had that competitive spirit and I think that’s what Randy’s trying to build here. I think he has built it here. Now it’s our job to convert our effort into points.”