After Lauren Proctor mowed down six straight ACC opponents to win the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's Carolinas Regional last fall, the only thing left standing was this question: is Proctor the best Winthrop tennis player ever?
"She's in a completely different level," said longtime Winthrop coach Cid Carvalho.
Proctor, who lived in Tega Cay for about five years before moving to Florida, is the school's highest ranked player ever, 32nd in the most recent ITA rankings released April 17. Her doubles partnership with Megan Kauffman is also the highest ranked duo in school history, checking in at No. 29.
The appearance of a Winthrop player in the ITA's top-40 is rare. Most of the players (and doubles teams) ranked ahead of Proctor come from Power 5 conference schools, like the ACC or Pac-12.
"It's just the amount of work that she has put throughout the years and the mindset to want to become a great tennis player," said Carvalho. "The combination of those two things, plus being in a place where she loves to be and representing a school where she grew up right beside it, I think the combination of that is a great chemistry for success."
'The Lauren Whisperer'
Proctor was named Big South player of the year earlier this week for the third time in as many years. She and the Eagles began their pursuit of a conference championship and NCAA Tournament berth Thursday morning at the Rock Hill Tennis Center. Her parents John and Melissa watched as Proctor moved Longwood's Yulia Almiron around the court at her will in a 6-0, 6-2 first round win.
She took her first tennis lessons as a 4-year old and she was 8 when she told her parents she wanted to play professional tennis. That's when the family met Carvalho, who worked with Proctor and suggested she pursue a higher level of competition. Proctor and her dad moved to Florida, while her older siblings finished high school at Fort Mill High.
Carvalho continued to track Proctor's development and kept in occasional touch. But he never thought she would end up at Winthrop.
"Not at the beginning. I felt she was going to end up going to a Power 5, or so," he said. "But no, she wanted to come to Winthrop."
Proctor's career hadn't taken off like she had hoped and college suddenly became a more tantalizing option. That decision came midway through what would have been her senior year of school, and the elite college programs' rosters were full. Carvalho had a spot and scholarship money.
"I knew him super well and he just wants the best for me so I thought that would be the best place for me to continue to work on my game and grow," said Proctor. "And it ended up being the best decision I ever made."
Proctor didn't completely flourish under several different youth coaches in Florida that hovered over her more than her current coach. Proctor said Carvalho's effectiveness comes from "allowing me to grow within myself by giving me my space, but also giving me advice when I need it."
Watching his daughter Thursday, John Proctor called Carvalho "The Lauren Whisperer."
"He would talk to her like a tennis player, not a 9-year old," John said.
Taking the ball early
She's 25-0 in Big South play the last three seasons. Earlier this week she became just the third woman in conference history to win a third Big South player of the year honor; only Coastal Carolina's Emma Kidd won four in four years, which Proctor can do in 2019.
Aggression is an apt adjective for her playing style.
"Aggressive from the baseline, she loves taking the ball early, great feel," said Kauffman, referring to Proctor's tendency to attack a bouncing ball instead of waiting on it to fall. "It really takes time away from the opponents, and obviously she's very powerful."
Kauffman and Proctor played two teammates in the Eagle Drill during Wednesday's practice before the conference tournament. The drill, which mixes singles and doubles play at the same time in a confusing barrage of tennis balls, forces players to cut through the madness to play two types of tennis at once. Kauffman and Proctor won a point and Proctor pumped her fist, yelling fiercely at her teammate and smiling.
"You can see it on the court when she plays," said Kauffman. "She has so much passion for the sport and that's just one of the many underlying reasons why she's so good. Definitely a lot of passion."
Junior tennis in Florida was unforgiving.
"There are a lot of ups and downs and everything is on you," said Proctor.
Winthrop offered comfort, something Proctor had very little of while she chased a pro career as a teenager. That immediately translated into on-court success.
"I started to get that success that I didn't have so much in juniors and it started to make me believe I could continue success at higher levels," said Proctor, "and that's been the case since I've gotten here."
John Proctor has noticed his daughter's confidence increase as a player and a person. He thinks that Lauren playing in a team with supportive coaches and a community of other Winthrop athletes around her, has buoyed her.
"Them believing in her helps her believe in herself," he said.
Proctor's development in Rock Hill sped up last summer. She played well in several pro tournaments -- amateur college players can compete but can't claim prize money -- but that didn't immediately continue into the fall school season. She played in several ITA tournaments in California with no significant success. The Carolinas Regional was Proctor's final event of the fall season and she approached with a "what the heck?" attitude. That was the right approach.
"You play for those moments, to play those bigger tournaments in the higher level, that's your goal," said Carvalho. "So, I think that was just kind of fulfilling what she set herself up to do."
'All the tools necessary'
Proctor has immediate goals -- helping Winthrop's women to a 15th NCAA Tournament in 17 years and qualifying for and playing in the NCAA singles and doubles tournaments later this spring -- but faces another summer and fall that could further confirm her pro tennis credentials.
"I think she has all the tools necessary to play in the professional tour," said Carvalho. "It's just a matter of polishing and getting out there and grinding day in, day out in that kind of environment."
Kauffman thinks playing doubles has helped Proctor's movement and use of the entire court. She's also seen her teammate show hardened mental strength during the tough moments of multiple different matches this season.
"I think that's really improved her game," said Kauffman.
Historically, college tennis wasn't seen as a viable avenue to playing professionally. That's changed some in recent years, and Proctor hopes to become the latest test case for that evolution. Playing at Winthrop has given her the confidence to believe it's possible, though all the success hasn't dimmed the competitive fires that fuel her pro dreams.
"I've learned to tone it down in some other areas of my life," said Proctor. "But tennis is not one of them."