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2016 Olympics: New Zealand's Football Ferns feature trio of Pac-12 alums

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Ever since the All Blacks rugby teams of 1880s, elite athletes from New Zealand have proudly worn a fern logo atop their hearts to represent their country. For the last few years, a trio of Pac-12 alumni have been carrying on the Kiwi sporting tradition while competing for the women’s soccer program..

Nowadays, former Cal star Betsy Hassett, Stanford standout alum Ali Riley and ex-UCLA Bruin Rosie White are all roaming the field for the Football Ferns in Rio for the 2016 Olympics. With a victory over France on Tuesday, New Zealand can secure a spot in the quarterfinals.

“Every game, I never take it for granted,” said Hassett. “It’s so, so awesome to wear the Fern on our shirts. It’s been a lot of hard work, but it’s awesome to represent the country and hope that we can keep playing a few more games after tomorrow.”

Earlier this week in Belo Horizonte, Hassett and Riley, proved to be physical forces for New Zealand in a 2-0 loss to the United States. Riley even got a yellow card during the match after getting tangled up with former Cardinal teammate Kelley O’Hara, while Hassett also relished another chance to duel with one of her former college teammates, and Team USA star Alex Morgan.

“That was pretty cool playing America in the first game,” Hassett said. “It’s so good for [Morgan] and I’m so proud of her for all that she’s done. I really look up to her and stuff like that. It’s really cool that we’ve played her a few times over the years. She’s done an awesome job to get where she is now.”

[Related content: 2016 Olympics: Cal alum Alex Morgan leads USWNT past New Zealand]

While White didn’t get to see any action against the American squad, the skilled striker made her Olympic debut in Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Colombia. White, 23, played for the Bruins from 2011-14, alongside Team USA alternate Sam Mewis. During the days leading up to the competition in Rio, White said she enjoyed catching up with Mewis over “a few coffee dates” since they were staying in the hotel.

Looking back on her experience with respected UCLA coach and former Team USA member Amanda Cromwell, White said she was grateful for the experience that has helped launch her career, as she is also now playing professionally with Liverpool. White has been associated with the New Zealand program since 2008, and said she received advice from Hassett and Riley while making the leap to UCLA.

“Both of them were big influences to me, deciding to go to college in the States,” White said. “They’re two of my closest friends on the team. It’s pretty cool. Going over there was obviously a great opportunity for me, and it was for them as well.”

[Related content: Follow the Pac-12 to Rio]

Hassett played in Berkeley from 2009-12 and has been a staple of the New Zealand national team ever since. Both Hassett and Riley are playing in their second Olympics for the Ferns after representing the team in London.

“My experience at Cal was unbelievable,” Hassett said. “It’s probably one of the best decisions of my life. It was great to get out of New Zealand and playing, training everyday, and also getting an education while doing it. And made some lifelong friends, just had the most incredible time.”

Hassett said she and Riley have formed a solid chemistry in New Zealand’s midfield over the past several years as teammates on the Ferns. Meanwhile White has enjoyed the opportunity to play with a couple of her close friends and mentors.

“They’re both great players -- very different players,” White said. “They’ve been people that I’ve looked up to on our team. They’re awesome role models.”

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