When the Park Ridge girls soccer team lost a trio of seniors to graduation earlier this year, coach Dave Schneider wondered from whom the leadership would come this fall. Nash Birch has the answer to that question.

The Park Ridge senior has undergone many changes over the last 12 months, some of which involve soccer, most of which involve life.

While she’s clearly a better player than she was entering her junior season, Nash’s maturity and sense of humanity have changed in way that have made her a different person.

Birch, 17, spent a month last summer in the African nation of Malawi. She worked at an orphanage; the trip sponsored by an organization called World Challenge. She paid her own way, raising the $7,000 it took to reach the southeastern coast of Africa. Birch called the experience “life-changing and eye-opening”, one that put soccer and everyday life into perspective.

“It made me realize that sometimes you don’t appreciate everything you have until you see what other people don’t have,” Birch said.

“You don’t appreciate it until you see it with other people’s eyes.”

While her trip to Africa took place last summer, Birch still had the luxury of relying on the aforementioned trio of seniors to guide her and her teammates through what was a very successful 2010 season. Now, the mantle of leadership has been placed on her shoulders and she’s ready to assume the challenges associated with being the voice of the team.

“I do see myself as a leader,” she said. “With everything you have to organize, practices, pushing us to get better as a team, I’d say I’m a natural leader. It comes easy for me.

“I think it [the trip] helped. You had to organize things there and help the others; things like making sure everyone took their malaria pills.

“So I do think it helped. It helped me mature and grow up. I didn’t know anybody else there. It was scary and I had to get over that and just live.”

Schneider says that he’s watched as Birch, who will play defense but see some time at midfield as well, has gravitated toward more of a leadership role this summer. She played on a club team and when Park Ridge entered a team in the Dumont Summer League, Birch excelled.

“She was spectacular in those eight games [at Dumont],” Schneider said.

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