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Reaching goals from Dayton to Togo

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- If Kelsey Miller was inclined toward the easy route, she wouldn't have followed in the footsteps of older brothers who set the bar almost impossibly high on the soccer field. If she thrived on the approval of strangers, she wouldn't put her talents to use as one of the best center backs in college soccer, a role that requires more minutes and garners less attention than any on the field. If she wasn't quite so set on doing it all, she wouldn't juggle a student-athlete's schedule with a premed major as a senior at the University of Dayton.

And if she put more stock in the volume of her words than the content of her actions, a lifelong dream of traveling to Africa would have remained something that sounded nice in a bio. She would not have put aside soccer last summer to volunteer in the overcrowded and underfunded hospitals and orphanages of the African nation of Togo.

Thankfully for her Dayton teammates, she is who she is. Fortunately for the world beyond in places like Togo, that means there are few limits on who she can become.

"She's that quiet kid that would never draw one bit of attention to herself, but that's just her," Dayton coach Mike Tucker said. "She has this idea in her mind that when she graduates and becomes a doctor, that that's the kind of work she wants to do -- underprivileged areas, people that maybe can't afford doctors, people that have not seen doctors. That's the kind of work she wants to do. She's as well-rounded a kid as you'd want to see."

All the same, a stranger with no affinity for soccer might have needed a translator to make it through dinner at the Miller household in Barrington, Ill., at any point during the past couple of decades. The sport was the language of choice and the subject of most conversations, talking about the latest exploits of Kelsey and older brothers Ryan, who played at Notre Dame and now plays professionally in Sweden, and Andy, who played at Wisconsin.

Kelsey excelled at tennis, a sport her mom encouraged her to pursue, if only to avoid the obvious familial comparisons. But as Laura Miller put it, her daughter isn't one easily dissuaded. Kelsey spent as much of her youth playing soccer with her brothers and filling out teams for games with their friends and teammates as she did playing against kids her own age, which perhaps goes a long way toward explaining both her ability to administer a physical challenge and her ability to absorb the same in return without a word of complaint.

"I was brought to all of their games," Miller said with the grin of a younger sibling perpetually forced to keep up or get left behind. "They never really came to any of mine."

Even back then, in a household in which soccer was the Lingua Franca, the seeds were taking root that would eventually land Miller at a dinner table with an altogether different language barrier in Lome, Togo's capital on the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa. From the time she was in sixth grade, Miller was fascinated by the people and issues of Africa. Time and again, the demands of high-level soccer forced her to put on hold any plans to follow through on her desire to travel there.

But when an opportunity arose last summer to take part in a program run by Projects Abroad, an organization that places volunteers in medical and other fields, she jumped.

"It was so different; it wasn't anything as I expected," Miller said of her first impressions of Lome. "It was very crowded, so many cars, the air was terrible because the engines are so bad and the cars are really old. It was a really big culture shock, which was kind of expected, but it was different thinking about it and actually being in it."

Days began at around 6 a.m. with a quick breakfast before the commute to work, the local way she would walk a few minutes from her host family's house to a main road and catch a ride to Regina Pacis Hospital on the back of a motorcycle taxi -- a better alternative than the overloaded taxis of the four-wheel variety. In the mornings, she'd take temperatures and record patient information for the people who streamed in, appointments or not. In the afternoons, she would sit in on individual consultations between patients and the mostly Togolese doctors, hoping her French was good enough to keep up in conversations that swung back and forth from that official language and a local African language. Many work days concluded with trips to local orphanages.

"Almost everything was surprising," Miller said. "It's kind of like those commercials you see where a dollar a day can support a kid. It really can. It's sometimes shocking to see that's actually the truth; one dollar can feed a kid for a long time. Just seeing the conditions at the hospital -- there were like 30 patients in one 20-by-20 room [in a pediatric wing]. So if one mosquito gets in there with malaria and bites some kid and gives it to another one -- the conditions in general are just sad."

Upon returning from her five-week stay, Miller organized a drive to collect soccer cleats to send to Lome, a small luxury for the kids she saw trading mismatched cleats on dirt fields with nothing more than poles for goals. She's preparing to again take the MCAT, the medical-school admission exam -- always looking, as Tucker put it, for perfection.

"When Kelsey said she wanted to do premed, what are you going to do, try and talk her out of it?" Roger Miller said of his daughter. "No, you're not going to try and talk her out of it. I'm way OK with people setting big goals for themselves. And if you can't reach them, fine -- then you figure out how to recalibrate down the road. But better to set huge goals than to set no goals at all or just go through life with no real direction. I give Kelsey all the credit in the world. It's been a big fight for her, and I'm sure she probably would have done better in school if she didn't have soccer to take so much time. But you know what? Soccer gives too much to you.

"She'll realize her dream one way or the other."

For now, she is back in a familiar world on the field for the Flyers, a team looking to follow back-to-back second-round appearances with a first trip to the Sweet 16. On a team with players who became the first in program history to be named to the Hermann Trophy watch list, Kathleen Beljan last season and Colleen Williams this season, she is sometimes overshadowed. But in the eyes of at least one observer with inside knowledge, she's the cornerstone.

"She's the organizer," Tucker said. "In my mind, Kelsey's our best soccer player. If she had an opportunity over the years to move up and play in the middle of the midfield, she'd be an absolute superstar there. But we've just needed her to be that steady, solid read-the-game defender in the back.

"We're going to miss her immensely next year. So I want to take advantage of every minute I can put her out on the field this year, for sure."

The truth is that while soccer got her to this point, it's time for the next step. The first step on a journey that could lead her back to a place like Togo.

"I'd like to go back and try and give back there and try and change some things there," Miller said.

Simple words for a complicated dream. But Miller has always been bigger on actions than words.

Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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