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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, March 14, 2004

The Natural

By Leila Wai
Advertiser Staff Writer

As a 10-year-old (top photo), Natasha Kai already had star potential. Tuesday, the University of Hawai'i sophomore leaves to play in an international tournament in China.

Kai family photo (top) and Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Natasha Kai

• Age: 20
• Height: 5-8
• Position: Forward
• School: University of Hawai'i
• Hometown: Kahuku

• Honors:

2003 WAC Player of the Year

2003 All-WAC First Team

2003 Soccer Buzz All-American Third Team

2003 Soccer Buzz All-West Region Team

2002 WAC Player of the Year

2002 WAC Freshman of the Year

2002 All-WAC First Team

2002 Soccer Buzz Freshman All-American Third Team

2002 Soccer Buzz Freshman All-West Region First Team

2002 UH Scholar-Athlete
The images of Natasha Kai's first soccer match are still vivid in her mother Sharon's mind.

There is Natasha, then 7, weighing less than 50 pounds and standing barely 4 feet, the top of her head reaching the shoulders of her opponents ...

There is Natasha, her ponytail bounding with every step, darting past defenders ...

There is Natasha, scoring a goal.

"It was surprising, because she had never played soccer before," Sharon said.

Kai, 20, was the small girl who would grow up to do something big, an auspicious start for the person soccer fans are now starting to recognize as one of the premier figures in Hawai'i soccer, ever.

Kai, a sophomore forward for the University of Hawai'i, was selected to the U.S. Under-21 National Team in late February. She will leave Tuesday to play in an international tournament in China from Wednesday through March 29, becoming one of the few from Hawai'i to make it as a member of any of the U.S. National teams.

It was a remarkable ascent, especially for someone from a football-worshiping area that didn't provide year-round soccer.

As a young child, Kai, who is of English, Irish, Scottish, German, American Indian, Filipino, Chinese, Hawaiian and Spanish descent, was always active, participating in soccer, summer track, and even P.O.N.Y. baseball for one year.

"She would always be running around on the street, going to the beach in the summer, or jumping on the trampoline (in the Kai's yard)," Sharon said.

She started playing soccer by participating in the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO).

"We had to travel so much to play: Sunset, Hale'iwa, 'Aiea, Pearl City," Kai said. "None of them would want to come travel all the way out there."

Two years after she began playing soccer, her father, Benny, took over as her coach, learning fundamentals and drills by reading books or renting videotapes from the local library.

"He took the time to learn about it so he could teach us," Kai said. "At first he didn't know anything about soccer."

When she was 12, she began playing in a more competitive league, the Hawai'i Youth Soccer Association (HYSA), for a Kailua club coached by Roy Takekawa and Alan Heu.

Multi-sport star

Although most players who go on to make the national team play soccer year-round, Kai found it too difficult when she entered high school.

For one thing, La'ie didn't have enough teams to fill out a full AYSO district, so the only soccer she played was for Kahuku High.

And Kai, who was an all-around athlete for the Red Raiders, was participating in cross country, volleyball, track and field and basketball, leaving her no time to play soccer except when it was in season.

"I think she would have been better if she stuck with soccer, but I don't think she would have kept playing soccer," Sharon said.

As a high schooler, Kai earned All-State first team honors in soccer in her senior season. She was also named to the OIA Eastern Division first team in volleyball and basketball. She won state titles in track and field — twice in the 300-meter hurdles, in which she holds the state record, and the 110 hurdles, high jump and long jump.

She was a part of the 2001 class of the prestigious Nissan Hawai'i High School Hall of Honor.

But still, it wasn't enough to shine in the football-crazed community — Kahuku won the first of three state football championships in her junior year, and repeated in her senior year.

"Kahuku is just football," Kai said. "It was hard because you could be the best athlete, but because you didn't play football, they didn't give you the time of day."

In Kai's senior season at Kahuku High School, the Red Raiders soccer team finished in first place in the O'ahu Interscholastic Association Eastern Division and qualified for the state tournament for the first time.

"I tried my best to make Kahuku known for other sports as well," she said. "I'm proud that when I was there, we got recognition for other sports besides football."

Takes a break

After her senior season at Kahuku, she signed to play with the University of Hawai'i. Bu she delayed joining the team for one year for "personal reasons."

"I just needed to take a break from soccer and school," she said. "If I came straight out of high school, I probably would have dropped out of school and not played soccer."

She joined the Rainbow Wahine in 2002, setting eight records her freshman season, and was named the Western Athletic Conference's Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. She also earned all-conference first team honors.

She followed that by leading the nation in goals with 29 last season, and was again named the WAC Player of the Year as a sophomore.

"I don't let that stuff get in my way," she said, stressing that soccer is a team sport. "When people talk highly of me, I laugh. I don't hold myself higher than anyone on the team."

Sticking to what has worked for her in the past, Kai decided to play for the UH softball team this season, mainly as a pinch runner.

"I took softball seriously as soon as I made the team," she said. "If I had to play soccer every day, year- round, I would get sick of it. Playing softball made me miss soccer."

"When people talk highly of me, I laugh. I don't hold myself higher than anyone on the team."

— Natasha Kai

U-21 invitation

But soccer came to the forefront again in late January when Kai found out that she was invited to the first tryout camp with the U-21 national team.

After making the second tryout, which took place in February, she knew she would have to focus all of her attention on soccer — and making the national team.

The small-town girl who worked hard enough to play NCAA Division I soccer would have to prove herself again on the national level.

"I don't think any of the girls up there would think there would be a person from Hawai'i as good as them," Kai said. "Now they know we have the talent in the Islands and they have to come and look for it."

From a pool of 40 players invited to the tryouts, she was chosen by national team coach Chris Petrucelli as one of 18 players who would make the trip to China.

Petrucelli initially invited Kai to the first tryout on recommendations from UH coach Pinsoom Tenzing, and other coaches.

"It's exciting for (Hawai'i) and for us, she's an exciting player," Petrucelli said. "We don't care where they come from, we just care if they can play.

"Her athletic ability stands out right away and it's impressive, but in order to be a national team player, you have to be more than an athlete," he said. "If you are just fast, go run track. You have to be a good soccer player.

"She has good skill with the ball, and she knows how to score goals."

Kai said that making the 18-woman roster for China, "hasn't hit me yet."

She has never been out of the United States, and said she knows little about China.

"I just know the Great Wall of China ... and Chinatown," she said. "It's almost a greater thrill going to China than making the national team."

Making sacrifices

But through all the excitement, Kai knows that there is a downside to the traveling she must do to participate on the national level.

"It's been really hard catching up and everything, just the fact I'm missing so much school, I'm going to have to make it up somehow," she said. "It's hard for me to come back and know stuff, to come back right away and take a test."

She must pass at least nine credits this semester to be eligible to play for the University of Hawai'i in the fall soccer season.

So far she has missed more than three weeks of school, and she'll miss another week and a half on her trip to China.

She also has to consider being invited back for the U-21 national camp in April, and a possible invite to another international tournament in Brazil from May 20 to 31.

"It's a sacrifice I have to do to make it this far," she said.

At the University of Hawai'i, Natasha Kai led the nation with 29 goals last season.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

She knows that the eyes of Hawai'i soccer fans are on her now, more than ever. Despite the fact that she is the two-time WAC Player of the Year, she said most people now recognize her after the announcement that she made the national team.

"People recognize me, which is good, because maybe (the UH soccer program) will get more support," she said.

But with the name recognition comes the scrutiny, something Sharon said she speaks to Kai about.

Last season, Kai was a part of a UH soccer team accused of spitting and punching, with her name high on the list of those to point fingers at.

"She always kind of retaliated, and once people know you're that type of player, any time something comes up, your name is going to be brought up," Sharon said.

Kai said she knows that the public is watching.

It is an on-field persona that would seem unlikely for someone who worked as a nanny two of the past three years, taking care of six children for a family from Sunset during the summer.

But her summer job seems appropriate for Kai, who has two sisters: Krisha, 19, who is on the UH soccer team, and Tatiana, 16, and three brothers: Jordan, 14, Jalen, 11, and Jurrell, 5. She also has an 11-month-old nephew, Kaizen.

Kai has become the measuring stick for young soccer players, the name they associate with success.

Sharon said that the children in Kahuku are proud to have such a high-profile athlete come out of their area — and the lookout for the next soccer star has begun.

" 'You're the next 'Tasha Kai,' they say," Sharon said. "They all want to be like 'Tasha."

Reach Leila Wai at lwai@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2457.