Kaylee Dao took the field with dozens of her family and friends sitting in the stands at John Crain Field for her senior night. It was the last game she would play in Norman and, among that supporting cast, someone was missing.
During her childhood, Dao and her father, Huy “Dale” Dao, would train together almost every day.
“Everything that Kaylee did was soccer. Most little girls were playing with dolls, but not Kaylee,” said Dao’s mother, Delann. “Kaylee was out kicking the soccer ball with her dad and watching professional soccer on TV. She wanted to be like her dad.”
Dao’s dad was everything to her. Dale would be the one taking Dao to practice, training her and her teammates, and implementing morals and ideas that Dao embraced.
“Growing up, my dad always made it fun and not something that I had to do,” Dao said. “It was something that we enjoyed and I enjoyed.”
Dale died of a heart attack in 2009, when Dao was in sixth grade.
Facing adversity, Dao became one of the top recruits in the nation out of Jenks High School. She joined the Mount Rushmore of players for Sooner soccer — finishing top-five all-time in school history in goals — and finished college expecting to be a professional soccer player. She’s leaving the program as arguably the greatest OU soccer player to ever play for the Sooners.
Through it all, after every goal Dao has scored, she has kissed her hands and pointed to the sky in honor of her dad.
“Her determination, her hard work and her passion and drive all came from her dad,” Delann said. “I get emotional just talking about it because I wish he was here to watch her.
‘She led by example’
Dao was unlike any of the other high school athletes. Instead of worrying about high school norms like other students, she was focused on becoming the best soccer player in the state of Oklahoma.
Dao was one of the top soccer recruits in the nation coming out of Jenks High School in Tulsa. She was a four-star recruit and ranked No. 81 in the nation by Top Drawer Soccer in 2014 and was named the Oklahoma Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior. She led Jenks to a state championship appearance, while also winning three district titles during her tenure.
“As a player, she led by example,” Jenks head coach Amanda Jo Johnson said. “You never had to motivate her because she was very self-motivated, she was the hardest worker in the weightroom, in the classroom and on the field. Just a coach's dream ... Even in high school, most kids don't take into consideration their nutrition, or their workouts, but she was tracking what she was eating and was always willing to put in extra work.”
“We’ve always seen that across the board, whether that’s taking care of her body or her performance in the classroom. That’s just who she is.”
For a 16-year-old girl to be that dedicated to her craft, it was obvious she was destined for greatness — destined to be one of the greatest of all time at Oklahoma, the school Dao always wanted to attend.
Dao and Keester go back to high school, where Keester was always a role model of sorts, as Keester was two years older than Dao.
“From high school soccer to college soccer, I had the opportunity to play with her and see her grow and develop into the wonderful human that she is,” said Dao’s former high school and college teammate Liz Keester. “For me, the biggest thing that sets her apart is her heart.”
Keester was a standout at Jenks, where she won Oklahoma Gatorade Player of the Year twice, in 2011 and 2013. Keester transferred to Oklahoma from Texas A&M after her sophomore season, which was Dao’s freshman year.
At Oklahoma, Keester led the Sooners to their first ever NCAA tournament win in 2016. Having background with an older, experienced player was helpful to Dao getting settled in Norman.
“She committed her freshman year and told other coaches talking to her that she loved OU. There was no changing her mind, she didn’t want to go anywhere else,” Delann said.
When the University of Oklahoma is brought up nationally, the seven national championships in football and the five Final Four appearances in basketball are the first things to come to mind — not soccer.
Dao, however, had the opportunity to change the culture. She wanted to turn the program around.
“(Then-head coach Matt Potter) wanted to compete for championships, but we weren’t quite at that place yet,” Dao said. “That made me want to go into this program and leave it a better place than I found it.”
‘Her work ethic was something that stood out to me’
Dao was a four-year starter under Potter and the Sooners, quickly becoming one of the team’s best players. She started a total of 73 games spanning five years from 2015 to 2019.
Dao finished her career at OU third all-time in goals scored with 29, and she finished second in goals scored in a single season with 13 — two behind the record held by former standout Whitney Palmer, who played from 2007 to 2010.
But college success did not come so easy for Dao, as she suffered a season-ending ACL injury her sophomore season, forcing her to forfeit and redshirt.
The following three seasons, Dao rebounded by starting every game and leading the team in goals and points, and she was named to three consecutive All-Big 12 First Teams from 2017 to 2019. In program history, there have been eight All-Big 12 First Team awards given to players from Oklahoma — Dao has three of them.
What distinguished her as one of the best in the history of the program was her senior season. Dao made a huge leap in production as a senior with 13 goals, seven higher than her previous best.
She was the catalyst for a team lacking production and a team that needed her to stay competitive.
With the Sooners scoring 25 goals on the season, Dao tallied more than half of them with 13 — good for a 52 percent goal share. No other Big 12 player has over half of their team’s goals. For comparison, Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Kirsten Davis for Texas Tech had a 39 percent goal share, with 16 goals.
The summer before Dao’s senior year, Potter convinced Dao to play in the Women’s Premier Soccer League to help push her as a player.
“I got to be in a different environment and learn about soccer in a different way,” Dao said. “Being there helped me grow tactically and helped me become a smarter player. I think that made a big difference.”
Dao traveled to Seattle to play for the Seattle Sounders WPSL team, where she developed her game even further. Dao won the Northwest Division Offensive Player of the Year, leading her team in goals and points.
“Kaylee wanted to get better every day, and her work ethic was something that stood out to me,” Seattle Sounders women’s head coach Scott Ford said. “Kaylee was very coachable and was not afraid to take pointers, and often asked for help on how to improve her game.”
Dao had a reevaluation phase going into the summer before her senior year, and she was not sure if she wanted to keep pursuing her dream of playing professional soccer.
“At first, it was really hard for her, and she was not sure if she could continue playing without her dad,” Delann said. “All those years of dreaming of playing college ball. Her and her dad would sit and talk about her playing college soccer someday.”
Dao arrived back in Norman for senior year rebooted — a changed player in all phases of the game, in terms of skills and being a leader.
One-hundred-and-thirty days after her first game with the Sounders, Dao took the field against Kansas State Oct. 3, solidifying herself in the history books.
Dao scored three goals, the last one being the game winner. She took over the game down the stretch, and everyone in attendance knew who her teammates were trying to give the ball to.
“The incredible thing about Kaylee is that everybody is fully aware of who she is, yet she still finds ways to put herself in a position to score a goal,” said Potter, who left the program following the 2019 season. “She obviously leads the charge of our group, and we’re very fortunate to have her on our team.”
‘The sky’s the limit’
When Dao and her family took the field, celebrating the career of one of the greatest players in the history of the program, her dad’s presence was felt.
Senior night was a storm of emotions coming full circle, as Dao had overcome injuries, the mental block of not knowing if she wanted to continue playing soccer and the loss of her dad.
Now that Dao’s career at Oklahoma is over, some might wonder what’s next. Where does she go from here?
If you ask Dao, or anyone else, she's going to be playing professional soccer.
“The sky's the limit for Kaylee,” Keester said. “She has the ability and drive to go far in the world of soccer.”
“I don’t think I’ve met my full potential yet,” Dao said. “I can still tap into that untapped potential if I give it my all.”
There’s nothing standing in Dao’s way.
“With how good of a season she’s having, she’s playing herself into being drafted,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s the end of her career.”
Dao went from a great college soccer player to a legendary one. She was on a mission, starting the summer before her senior season, to play soccer as long as she possibly could — and she's doing that.
“Kaylee has a story and has persevered through some incredible hardships which I think sets her apart,” Keester said. “She knows what it’s like to be on the odd end of things and has had to work through so much and has grown immensely as a player and person.”
Fighting through adversity, Dao played Division 1 soccer, won countless awards and put herself in the record books — and she did it all for her dad.
“I can’t believe things have come full circle from my little 4-year-old playing soccer to her senior night of her college career,” Delann said. “She plays soccer for her dad.”