Semipro soccer player Kailey Utley balances her sport with optometry school
Three years ago, on a chilly, late-November afternoon in 2015 -- with the stands full of bundled-up, blue-and-gold-clad soccer fans -- senior Kailey Utley and her West Virginia University teammates took to their home field for an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 matchup with Loyola Marymount.
After failing to get a shot off in the first half of a 2-2 game, Utley came free early in the second half, received a pass and scored for a 3-2 Mountaineers lead. Three minutes later, she scored again. And about 24 minutes later, she drilled another shot into the net.
West Virginia won 5-2 to advance to the Elite Eight, and Utley had a perfect, storybook exit on her home turf -- while extending her career for at least one more game.
A hat trick in her final home game? In the Sweet 16?
"I don't know if there's ever going to be a soccer memory that's ever going to top that," she said.
The next week, however, the season came to an end. West Virginia was ousted on the road by top-seeded Penn State. And Utley thought she had also played her final competitive soccer game.
She graduated a semester early, that December, with a degree in biology and a plan to become an optometrist. The soccer forecast was hazy, yet she didn't feel quite ready to take off her cleats.
"I've always been heavily focused on academics, so that was always going to be Plan A," she said. "But if soccer came up, I would maybe consider it."
Today, Utley, 24, is two-plus years into the four-year program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis College of Optometry, on track to graduate in May 2020. She's also a commissioned second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve, due to be activated and promoted to captain upon graduation. And despite a rigorous academic load, taking as many as 25 units per semester, she's still playing soccer.
She just completed her third season as a forward with the semipro Fire and Ice SC, a team in Belleville, Illinois, in the Women's Premier Soccer League.
As busy as she is and as focused as she is on school and her pending military commitment, Utley says it's important to keep playing as long as she can.
"The thing that's special about soccer is all the people I've been able to meet through the game," she said. "So many incredible people, and your teammates become like your family. ... it's just opened so many doors for me."
Shortly after graduating, Utley was invited to try out with FC Kansas City of the National Women's Soccer League. There was no way she was going to pass on playing professionally, so she stayed in Morgantown, West Virginia, a couple of months to train for the team's preseason. Her short stint with FC Kansas City didn't work out, however, so she moved home to St. Louis.
Before starting optometry school in the fall of 2016, she was invited to play for Fire and Ice of the WPSL (a step below the NWSL). The team plays from May through late July or early August, with playoffs following.
The league is a mix of former college players such as Utley, current collegians, former high school players and has even included a few former national team members for the U.S. or other countries. In the past, such players as Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain and Abby Wambach have played. Some teams are made up of reserve players for NWSL teams.
"We are definitely playing at a high, competitive level," said Utley. Players aren't paid, but the team handles travel costs. Most games are within a radius of a five- or six-hour drive, though Fire and Ice has flown for postseason games in Texas, Southern California and Oklahoma.
In 2017, Fire and Ice went to the league final four near San Diego and won it all, beating the Gulf Coast Texans 2-1 in the championship game. The team went 12-0 and outscored its opponents 44-5. As team captain, Utley scored 11 goals and had two assists that season.
What she enjoyed best about that season wasn't any specific game or goal, but what it was like to bond with her teammates and consistently beat teams perceived as more talented.
"People maybe wouldn't look at our roster and go down the line and look at the schools we've been to and say, 'Wow, they're a stacked roster,' " she said. "But because we play very well together and we're all competitive and we're all close with each other, it was cool being the underdog and winning the whole championship."
In 2016, her first season, Utley had eight goals and four assists. In the recently completed 2018 schedule, she had eight goals and one assist. Though she's now a full-time student and part-time soccer player, Utley took her scoring knack from West Virginia to the Fire and Ice. For the Mountaineers as a senior, she was second in points in the Big 12 (30, with 12 goals and six assists) with seven game-winning goals and was a first-team all-Big 12 selection (while also being selected an Academic All-American). She's still a strong one-on-one attacker and playmaker.
"Kailey is one of the most dynamic players that I have ever coached," Fire and Ice head coach Lindsay Eversmeyer said. "What makes her so good is her speed, technical ability, creativity, deception and powerful shot. She is very self-driven and competitive and is not afraid to put the team on her shoulders in big games."
Though Utley dearly loves soccer, it ranks No. 2 now to studying optometry. So, there are times when she's too swamped by academics to put in the kind of workouts she'd like to get in for soccer. Still, she carves out time for one to two games per week during the season, along with two practices, and does work out on her own year-round, doing incline speed training, agility sessions and weightlifting. In the offseason, she'll also play indoors when she has the chance. One of her priorities, though, is to avoid injury.
"I can't afford to get hurt, with optometry school and being in the Army, so getting hurt is out of the question," she said. When she's in practices and games, she reminds herself to be smart. "I'm working hard, but in the back of my mind is, 'I've got to be a little bit careful.' I can't be reckless on the field."
When she started the optometry program, Utley had no specific plans to join the military. But an Army recruiter made a presentation to incoming students about going into the service after school and she thought it would be a good path. She'd get her school paid for, be activated upon graduation, go to basic training and then get to practice where she'll be needed.
"I had a desire to serve my country, so I thought it would just be a great opportunity," she said. Utley was one of four optometry students across the country to receive a full scholarship from the F. Edward Hebert Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Program.
She'll be required to serve three years, but she could see making a career out of it. She also can see playing soccer in the Army if the opportunity is there. She says soccer has taught her much, including teamwork, how to fight through adversity and the need to work to be her best.
"I want soccer to be a part of my life as long as I live, whether it be in a coaching role or playing role," she said. "If I can keep playing, I'll always keep playing."