Focused on the goal at hand

Proctor has No. 2 Duke poised for another NCAA run

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Speaking with the polish one might expect from someone who will graduate from Duke University in less than two months, E.J. Proctor might seem different from the young lady who starred in whatever sports she played a few years ago at Fike High.

But rest assured that, if anything, her fiercely competitive nature is even more honed.

Proctor was a pretty good goalkeeper at Fike, helping the Lady Demons soccer team to one of their best seasons ever as a senior in 2014 when they reached the state 3-A semifinals. Now Proctor is one of the best collegiate goalkeepers in the country on one of the top teams in the nation.

The Blue Devils, ranked No. 2 in the nation and now 18-1, will try to extend their program-best winning streak to 19 when they face No. 10 Virginia in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinals on Friday afternoon. That comes on the heels of Duke’s first unbeaten run through the regular season in ACC play and its third conference regular-season title.

While the Blue Devils have dominated ACC foes (except a 2-1 non conference loss to archrival North Carolina in the UNC Nike Classic on Aug. 18), there is much more to accomplish, especially for Proctor and her six senior classmates.

“It’s awesome when you can win the ACC regular season but the main goal is the national championship,” she reminded in a telephone interview Wednesday morning.

Duke came close to that in 2015 when the Blue Devils made a surprising run to the NCAA College Cup championship game, where they lost 1-0 to Penn State. Proctor was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player but it was just a consolation prize.

Two years later, Duke is not going to surprise anyone if it ends up playing on the final day of the season.

“We understand what it takes to get there and how to stay together,” Proctor said. “I think when you have a lot of seniors and juniors you have more coaches on the field.”

The difference between this group of Blue Devils and the 2015 version, Proctor said, has been their ability to play more of an attacking style of soccer.

“Two years ago, we’d sit in and keep 11 players behind the ball,” she said. “In a way, we were more disciplined but we didn’t have the personnel to press a team.”

While the Blue Devils are scoring at a greater clip (2.31 goals per match compared to 1.84 in 2015), they are also defending better. Duke’s 2017 opponents are averaging less than a half goal per game compared to the .64 average two years ago.

“Our ability to move the ball more under pressure makes a big difference in the goal,” Proctor said. “That’s been huge for me, a big weight off my shoulders.

“Teams have to work to get a good chance and that’s a huge credit to them in the back. There’s only been a couple of games where we gave up way too many shots.”

Proctor credits that to the the fact that three — junior Chelsea Burns and seniors Schuyler DeBree and Morgan Reid — of the four backs have been in place since Proctor took over starting duties as a sophomore.

“It’s just so much more natural,” said Proctor, who’s also doing her part.

She leads the ACC in three categories — goals against average (.433), shutouts (9) and save percentage (.833). Nationally, Proctor ranks 10th and 20th, respectively, in goals against and shutouts. Her 30 career shutouts ranks third all-time at Duke, just four behind career leader Melissa Carr from 1992-95.

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Proctor was named to the All-ACC first team Thursday, her first all-conference honor. As a junior, she was named to the All-ACC Academic Team.

But the drive for perfection still burns brightly in Proctor as well as her teammates despite their accomplishments to date.

“Even when we beat Virginia to win the regular season, we were smiling but there was no celebration because we did not play well,” she said. “No one is satisfied because it’s been a few weeks since we walked off the field extremely proud of how we played.”

Because they’ve been there before — and were stung by the disappointment of losing in the national championship — Proctor and her teammates aren’t taking anything for granted, she said.

“We are so not as good as we need to be,” she said. “We have to play that way. From here on out this is where the winning steak matters.”

No matter how it ends on the field this season for the Blue Devils, it will be the end of Proctor’s collegiate career in more ways than one. She’s set to graduate in December, ahead of schedule, with a major in visual and media studies and a minor in cultural anthropology.

However, she’s not ready to give up soccer just yet. Proctor said she will put her name in the National Women’s Soccer League draft, set for Jan. 18, 2018.

“Hopefully that will work out and in the offseason, I will look to play internationally,” she said.

But for now, she’s just trying to enjoy the moment while she can.

“I’m definitely trying to soak it all in,” she said. “It’s kind of like I have something extra in my back pocket. The thing I focus on is that it’s so fun to be out here in a Duke jersey.”