May 24, 2009
COLLEGE STATION, Texas - In an epic battle between two top-10 teams, the University of Tennessee doubles pairing of junior Caitlin Whoriskey and freshman Natalie Pluskota came up just short of reaching the national championship match, falling in a third-set tiebreaker in the semifinals of the NCAA Doubles Championships Sunday afternoon at the George P. Mitchell Tennis Center on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.
The 10th-ranked Tennessee tandem was defeated by the No. 8-rated Stanford duo of Hilary Barte and Lindsay Burdette, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (4). Whoriskey and Pluskota conclude the 2009 campaign with a 15-7 overall record, including a dozen victories over nationally-ranked opponents
"That was one of the best collegiate doubles matches that I have ever been a part of," UT co-head coach Mike Patrick said. "It was simply two of the best teams in the country laying it all out on the line. It is unfortunate that we came up on the losing end, but (co-head coach) Sonia (Hahn-Patrick) and I could not me more proud of how Caitlin and Natalie have played this entire week. They really stepped up their game and played extremely well against some of the best competition in the nation."
By reaching the semifinals, Whoriskey and Pluskota matched the best performance in the NCAA Doubles Championships in school history, as Shannon Kagawa and Mandy Wilson joined forces to accomplish the feat in 1992 as well. With three NCAA triumphs each, the two teams combine to account for six of the nine total victories in program history.
"It's so hard to be mad about a match like that, because we put everything into it," Pluskota said. "Props to Stanford. They came up with some great shots a few times. Yeah, we had chances, but they came up with the goods."
Sunday's contest marked the second time in four days that Whoriskey and Pluskota had squared off against a team from Stanford, as they previously defeated the Cardinal combo of Jessica Nguyen and Carolyn McVeigh, 6-4, 6-3, in the opening round of the tournament on Thursday, May 21.
"I definitely didn't expect them to come up with the volleys that they came up with," Burdette said. "They played unbelievable. We had to play really solid to beat them. I never in this tournament thought that we would play a team more aggressive than we were, and they were. We are not use to that."
The opening frame did not start out quite like the UT duo had planned, as Stanford was able to pick up a service break in the very first game and hold serve in the second, to race out to a 2-0 advantage. Although the Orange and White was able to hold off a break-point opportunity in the next game and finally got on the scoreboard when Pluskota volleyed a shot past Barte down the right-side of the court, the Cardinal continued to apply the pressure, taking a 3-1 lead after Barte held on her first chance at the service line.
After the Lady Vols held serve to move back to within a single score, they got a bit of a break as Burdette had back-to-back double faults to return the match to a deadlock at 3-all. The Big Orange was unable to take advantage of the gift, however, as Burdette redeemed herself with a sharp cross-court volley that finished off a break of Whoriskey's serve and put the Cardinal back up 4-3. The two squads then traded the next two games and UT found itself down, 5-4, and needing a break to stay alive. Burdette had other ideas though and blasted three aces to close out the frame.
The second set did not start much better for Tennessee as the Cardinal scored another first-game break to jump out to the early lead. This time, however, Whoriskey and Pluskota were able to regroup and tally four quick points against Barte to even it up at 1-1. It looked as if the run of breaks would continue, but Whoriskey was able to fight off a break point to return the third game to deuce. She then proceeded to hit a beautiful lob over Barte's head to the back-left corner of the court to give her team the advantage before a Burdette volley found the net on the next point to give UT the 2-1 lead.
The momentum kept rolling in the Big Orange's favor and it claimed back-to-back games to take a commanding 4-1 advantage. After breaking Burdette, the Lady Vols battled back from break point twice with Pluskota serving an ace and Whoriskey volleying a shot past Barte. Once again, Burdette ended the game with a volley into the net. The Cardinal was not done fighting though, recording its own two-point swing by holding serve and breaking Whoriskey.
That would be all Tennessee would allow, however, and it closed out the set with back-to-back scores, to send the match to a third and deciding set for the second consecutive day. With the scoreboard reading 4-3 in favor of UT, the Lady Vols took a quick 40-0 lead with Burdette serving. After Stanford got one of the points back, yet another Cardinal volley found the net to give the Big Orange the break it needed. Just moments later, Pluskota turned a 15-30 deficit into a 40-30 lead with a pair of aces. The Newnan, Ga., native then split the two Stanford players with a sharp shot down the center of the court to finish off the frame.
After a total of eight service breaks through the first two sets, both teams buckled down and refused to be the first to give one up in the third frame, which would eventually end in a tiebreaker. Although there were no breaks, that does not mean that there were not opportunities for both teams to do so. With Stanford leading 2-1, Whoriskey fell behind 15-30 before responding with three straight winners. Just two games later, it was Pluskota's turn to hold serve. The game was determined with a great volley sequence between Whoriskey and Burdette on the final point, which ended with Burdette hitting the top of the net to keep the score tied at 3-3.
Three quick games followed to put the score at 5-4 in favor of Stanford with Pluskota headed back to the service line. Knowing that a break would give them the victory and a berth in the championship match, Barte and Burdette were determined to end the contest. That was not what Whoriskey and Pluskota had in mind, however. The Tennessee tandem had to fight off four match opportunities and hold its composure through nine deuce points, but was able to keep the score tied at 5-5 when a Cardinal error ended the game. Perhaps realizing that the match was destined to be determined by a tiebreaker, the next two points came fairly quickly for the serving teams as the contest arrived at a 6-6 stalemate.
With Barte serving on the first point of the tiebreaker, an overhead smash by Whoriskey landed just long to give Stanford the first point. The Lady Vols quickly bounced back though, using a Pluskota ace, a sharp volley by Whoriskey and a Barte miscue to take a 3-1 advantage. Not ready to give up just yet, the Cardinal duo got the score back to a 3-3 tie with an ace by Burdette down the center of the court and a cross-court return by Barte that landed just inside the right line.
With the UT men's team of John-Patrick Smith and Davey Sandgren loudly cheering them on from the sidelines after their own semifinal victory earlier in the day, the Lady Vols were able to regain the lead once again at 4-3 when Pluskota blasted home a Stanford lob. Unfortunately for fans of the Orange and White, that would be the team's final point of the afternoon, as the Cardinal closed out the contest with three consecutive scores.
"It helps you when you have people behind you and we couldn't have asked for a better crowd than the men's team was today," Whoriskey said. "They're in the finals right now, and I guess we'll return the favor and watch them tomorrow."
The defeat marks the end of a highly successful 2009 season for the Lady Vol tennis team, which finished with its third top-10 ranking in school history after posting an 18-7 overall record. In addition to Whoriskey and Pluskota's accomplishments in the NCAA doubles tournament, the Big Orange finished in a tie for second in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference and reached the finals of the SEC Tournament, as well as the second round of the NCAA Championships.
NCAA DOUBLES CHAMPIONSHIPS RESULTS
Round of 32 (May 21) - No. 10 Caitlin Whoriskey/Natalie Pluskota (UT) def. No. 38 Jessica Nguyen/Carolyn McVeigh (Stanford) - 6-4, 6-3
Round of 16 (May 22) - No. 10 Caitlin Whoriskey/Natalie Pluskota (UT) def. No. 2 Kelcy Tefft/Kristy Frilling (Notre Dame) - 7-6 (4), 6-3
Quarterfinals (May 23) - No. 10 Caitlin Whoriskey/Natalie Pluskota (UT) def. No. 34 Josipa Bek/Ina Hadziselimovic (Clemson) - 6-4, 3-6, 6-4
Semifinals (May 24) - No. 8 Hilary Barte (Stanford) def. No. 10 Caitlin Whoriskey/Natalie Pluskota (UT) - 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (4)