Taylor Proctor is sitting in the Bill Russell Conference room, just a few steps from the War Memorial Gymnasium court, minutes removed from helping lead USF to a 2-0 start to the season. She’s picked out her post-game meal from the spread of hot-plated trays stacked in the corner. One styrofoam plate is dedicated to her sandwich. The other has a heaping of steamed broccoli.
And there’s a beige band-aid obscuring part of her left eyebrow.
“Oh,” Proctor says with a quick laugh, when asked about it. “Yeah, that’s from Columbia.”
During the Dons’ season opener against the Lions, Proctor had driven into the lane. Standard stuff for the multi-faceted 6-0 junior forward, who loves to face up on the perimeter.
Only, on this particular foray, Proctor was met by an elbow that sent her reeling out of bounds. She didn’t even know she was bleeding until the refs told her to head to the bench and clean up the gash that had opened above her eye. Ten minutes later, the bleeding finally stanched, Proctor was back on the court. Want tough? She finished with 15 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists and a block in a 70-65 win.
That ability to mix it up in the low post (if Proctor’s in the vicinity, good luck getting the rebound), as well as step out for a different angle of attack. Versatility has been second-nature for Proctor since she attended Sand Creek (CO) High, in Colorado Springs. In addition to her exploits on the hardwood for the Scorpions, which were considerable, Proctor played goalkeeper for the soccer team. Oh, and she played handball. For Team USA.
Yes, there was Proctor, helping the national team qualify for the 2011 Pan American Games, just two years after she’d picked up the sport.
Jennifer Azzi, USF’s head coach, remembers watching film—handball tape included—of this force of a forward. Before she’d even seen Proctor play in person, Azzi knew she wanted her on the Hilltop. “Certain people have a special way about them,” says Azzi, pointing at Proctor. “It’s about what she brings in different areas, other than scoring. Toughness, defense, rebounding. In my mind, those are way more valuable than scoring.” It didn’t take long for Proctor to land upon USF. Like so many of her current teammates, she wanted to play for Azzi, who’s put together a dynamic staff, as well as a vision. There’s a narrative thread that runs throughout this roster. These players want to build something special.
As a sophomore, Proctor led the Dons in points (14.0) and rebounding (7.3), despite missing much of the preseason due to a fracture in one knee. (She’d missed her senior season in high school after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament and the medial and lateral meniscus in the other knee.)
Rather than stew over the time missed to injury, Proctor raves about the ways the time spent convalescing allowed her to burnish her overall game. Which fits. Azzi has said you can usually find her in the gym. She’d work on whatever the training staff had cleared her to do.
“I mean, coming out of high school, I didn’t have range on my shot,” Proctor says, casting a glance and chuckling while Azzi nods knowingly. “So I worked on my shot, my handle, and overall feel for the game. When you’re out, you see so much more about the game, like what your teammates are doing. You get to know their tendencies.”
When she was cleared to resume playing, Proctor says that she seized upon it. That impressive sophomore season was capped with 28 points dropped on Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference quarterfinals. Despite the 81-68 loss, Proctor emerged defiant.
The 13 points that separated them from the Zags? This offseason, the Dons turned it into a mantra. The points were a window into what it takes to become a post-season team.
There’s plenty of reason to feel excited about the Dons this season. This is the deepest group Azzi has fielded in her five years at USF, as well as the most veteran—and they still start just one senior.
Add in a strong recruiting class, which was on show during this first weekend of action. Michaela Rakova, a 6-3 post from Slovakia, has already chalked up a double-double. Anna Seilund, a skilled 5-9 Danish guard, punctuated two good games with some serious flash in her fast-break finishing. Tiara Tucker, a roadrunner of a 5-3 guard (Azzi calls her a one-person press break), gets into the lane at will.
But this Dons team will only go as far as its veteran core can lead it. Proctor and fellow junior Zhané Dikes have started together since they were freshmen. Taj Winston has been filling up stat sheets for four years now. No opponent is safe when she starts applying her vaunted defensive pressure.
After combining for 53 starts as freshmen, sophomores Rachel Howard and Claudia Price once again round out the starting rotation. “Their trust and their chemistry makes such a big difference,” says Azzi. “And I think the team that ultimately plays the best together will win the conference. It’s almost that simple.”
In the season’s second game, USF obliterated Sonoma State 83-42. Proctor played just 23 minutes, but she compiled 6 points, 7 rebounds, 0 additional gashes and four assists—one of which was a sublime bounce pass from the top of the key to Price for an easy layup.
Many forwards share the same skill set. Few have Proctor’s tenacity and drive. “She’s perfect in our offense,” says Azzi. “To have a post like her that can pull bigger players away from the basket, is huge. And we can post her up on the block, or have her face up for her mid-range game. It’s really a unique skill set.”