IRVINE — Lauren Thaxter was in and out of the Corona del Mar High girls' tennis lineup during the second half of league.
The CdM sophomore started three Pacific Coast League matches that she couldn't finish.
Each time, Coach Brian Ricker thought Thaxter's season might be over.
Each time, there was Thaxter the next day at practice.
Everybody would have understood if Thaxter shut it down for the season. It has been a very challenging time for her since she was diagnosed with atypical migraine headaches earlier this fall. The Sea Kings' top returning player missed five weeks, a huge chunk of the season.
She still has what she calls "episodes," the migraines leaving her very weak and certainly unable to play tennis. When Thaxter or her mother Jayne says she's having a "bad day," the meaning is understood.
Lauren Thaxter had two great days at this week's Pacific Coast League individual finals. She finished fourth in singles after she was beaten by No. 3-seeded Northwood sophomore Chloe Pham, 6-3, 0-6, 6-2, on Wednesday at Beckman. Thaxter then defaulted the third-place match.
The days were not great because of the results, coming up a match short of advancing to CIF Individuals.
They were great because Thaxter is getting her life back.
She went toe-to-toe with some of the best players in Orange County, coming back to upset No. 2 seed Krystal Lai of University in the PCL quarterfinals on Tuesday night.
"In the big picture, there's the migraine issue, but she also played a two-hour match [Tuesday] night," Ricker said. "She hadn't played a competitive match in two months. It was a hard match, and that's going to make everyone tired and sore the next day. The negative is that she lost [Wednesday] when she had a chance, but the positive is that she had two great days in regards to her moving forward and getting control of her migraines. Those are the first competitive matches she's been able to play.
"She just battled like crazy. The most important thing to her is getting back to her normal life. Her mom tells me academically, she can study full-time and she's in school full-time. One of the last big steps is getting back to her normal tennis routine. She loves tennis."
Thaxter said she was still feeling sick Wednesday. On the changeovers she had an unusual drink for a tennis player, Lipton brisk iced tea, as Ricker said she needed the caffeine since she was also feeling tired.
But she never stopped working, even after Pham took the first set. Thaxter, showing off her big backhand, came right back out and won the second set, 6-0.
In the third set Pham jumped out to a 5-0 lead, but Thaxter adjusted. She began hitting "moon balls," looping lob shots that are designed to push the opponent back off the court.
The strategy worked for two games until Pham closed out the match. But for Thaxter, every set finished, every match completed has been a step in the right direction.
She said she was surprised she got to the semifinals, as she's still rusty and her shots — particularly her forehand — are not as big as they were just a few months ago. But she can't help but smile when talking about the progress.
"I never give up," Thaxter said. "I never think I can't do anything … I wanted to compete [at the league individual tournament]. I wanted to try my best to compete. I always want to do the most I can do, no matter what."
Each team in the league was presented with a sportsmanship certificate Wednesday, and CdM's went to Thaxter. She has always been a polite player on the court.
Now she has plenty of fans. After playing a doubles match Wednesday, senior teammates Catherine Keligian and Savannah Thies came over to root on Thaxter. Neither was surprised that she came back in the second set against Pham.
"I was confident in Lauren, always am," Keligian said. "Everyone's confident in her. She's a fighter."
University Coach John Kessler, whose team won its second straight league title this year, marvels at Thaxter's determination.
Kessler told her story to the Trojans' players after one match. He said many of those players soon became teary-eyed.
"She's just such an inspiration," Kessler said. "How could you not root for her?"
In tennis, "love" means nothing. In Thaxter's life, it means everything. She's back on-point in the sport she loves to play, and she's not letting anything stand in her way.
"It's like the best feeling in the world," Thaxter said. "It's one more stepping stone toward becoming back to how I was before, becoming normal again. [I'm] getting back in the rhythm of my normal life."
CdM's Olivia Laws and Riley Gerdau in singles, as well as Keligian and Thies in doubles, each fell in consolation semifinal matches Wednesday.