SANTA ROSA BEACH — Since she could dribble a ball in her back yard, Lauren Keiser has dreamed of playing professional soccer. Of making the national team. Of going to the Olympics.


As she grew up, she said she realized those goals might be harder to attain than the goals she scored with ease on the soccer pitch, but the South Walton senior got one step closer to achieving her dreams Wednesday, signing a letter of intent to play collegiately at the University of Illinois-Chicago.


“It’s just all really exciting,” Keiser said. “It’s a whole new chapter in my life. I was just so ready to start that I didn’t even have a second thought about it. I just did it, got it done and told the coaches I was super excited to move on.”


Understandable considering the swan song Keiser turned in at South Walton.


Spending the past year as a co-captain, she led the team with 15 goals and seven assists from her forward spot — though she said she will play keeper for UIC — guiding the Seahawks to a District 1-3A championship and a region semifinals appearance.


Keiser said she then got in touch with the Flames through the Gulf South Soccer Club after her club coach, Michael Riggle, signed her up to attend a camp in Orlando.


“So, I went there, did the camp training and then I met the UIC assistant coach there,” Keiser said. “And at this point I didn’t even look twice; I was just trying to find an offer or trying to find something for closure. I didn’t even realize that he was there and he emailed me later on and invited me to a camp in Chicago.”


The camp was a turning point. Keiser loved everything about her trip. Walking downtown, playing with potential teammates and bonding with coaches each served to make her decision all the more clear: She wanted to play for UIC.


The only drawback?


“It was a little chilly,” Keiser said. “That was the only thing I’m not used to.


“We’re going to have to buy a lot of warm clothes.”


Wardrobe hitch aside, Keiser was also drawn to the university’s mechanical engineering program. Although her dream of playing professional soccer remains intact, her backup plan also shoots for the stars.


“I’ve always loved building things and putting things together, and I want to get a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering to then specialize in aerospace engineering,” Keiser said. “That’s something I’ve always been so fascinated with.


“It’s like a very high up there dream, but it’s a dream of mine to work for NASA; that would be so awesome.”


In the meantime, Keiser remains completely committed to soccer and her new teammates. She cannot wait to get to work.


“Honestly, I really don’t do anything but play soccer and hang out with my friends, so to make friends with my teammates and be able to live with them and go to school with them is gonna be something really cool for me, especially with it being at such a high level,” she said. “It’s gonna be challenging for me, and I’m gonna work my butt off to be good and help that team and just fit right in.”