Jan. 19, 2012
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The 18th-ranked Tennessee Lady Vol tennis team opens its 2012 campaign this weekend against a pair of top-10 foes in No. 9 Virginia (0-0) on Saturday at 6 p.m. ET and No. 4 North Carolina (2-0) on Sunday at 3 p.m. Held at the Billie King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., site of the US Open Grand Slam, Tennessee will be in search of its 600th win in program history.
At 599-354 (.629) all-time, Tennessee enters its 36th season with three returning starters, all of which earned All-SEC honors last season and are currently ranked nationally.
Looking to build off of the 10th 20-win season in UT annals, Tennessee will have to do so while incorporating four freshmen, three of which will get their first dual-match experience this weekend.
Senior Natalie Pluskota, a 2011 First Team All-SEC selection, owns UT's highest singles ranking at No. 24, which also marks her highest career rating. She's also slotted at ninth in doubles, alongside junior Kata Szekely, who is 59th in singles and ranked in both polls for the first time in her career.
The Lady Vols' veteran leadership will help acclimate a 2011 signing class that was rated the fifth-best nationally by TennisRecruiting.net, featuring Toti, Joanna Henderson and Knoxville native Caitlyn Williams. That group was bolstered by the addition of freshman Jesse Grace, who joined the team last week.
Tennessee is entering its 15th season under co-head coaches Mike Patrick and Sonia Hahn-Patrick. Together, they've compiled a 254-133 (.656) record. Overall, Patrick is entering his 25th year at UT (413-240).
For updates throughout the weekend, follow @LadyVol_Tennis on Twitter. Results and recaps will be posted to UTLadyVols.com.
Q&A WITH COACH PATRICK
Q. You've established something special here at Tennessee, an elite program not only in the SEC ranks, but nationally as well. How have you accomplished that?
MP: "I think we have a good work ethic here, and that's what we've based our program on. We get kids with the same mentality who don't mind doing the work, who are looking to improve and don't mind going to work every day. It started 25 years ago when I got here. We have kids in here who want to do the work and are looking to try to improve. We've tried to find those kids over the course of our time here and they've allowed us to keep putting competitive teams out in the field."
Q. How do you sustain that success and what's next for the program?
MP: "A lot of it has to do with our plans for our physical plant here, our facilities that will help take it to a new level. Recruiting is always the lifeblood of every program. To be able to get some of those kids that are already established will help us get ahead of the curve a little bit. Right now, we're bringing in a lot of kids who work hard and reach those high plateaus, but they put in a couple years of work to get there. If you can get some of those kids that can come in and be impact players right away, that will help you."
Q: What did you see from you team in the fall that's encouraging?
MP: "We have a good level of talent. We have great enthusiasm and a great work ethic. A couple of the freshmen, Joanna (Henderson) and Sarah (Toti), both improved a lot in the fall. Caitlyn (Williams) has done a good job of trying to get rehabbed and ready to go. Now that Jesse (Grace) is here, we have a good core group to build on for the next four years. That's exciting. Our three returning players are all good players. They're all established. They all work. They all know how to play. They all know how to compete. They can help show those younger players what to do in battle situations."
Q: Heading into your 25th year, what makes this squad unique?
MP: "Physically, we're very big. It's probably the biggest team we've ever had. We have three or four individuals that are pretty good size, who can be more aggressive in their style. It will be interesting trying to incorporate that into the way we're going to play. We've had a lot of smaller kids that ground matches out. Some of them can actually be physical and take it to opponents in a way we haven't ever been able to do before."
Q: You've mentioned the talented freshman class, which was ranked fifth nationally and first in the SEC in 2011 by TennisRecruiting.net. Talk about the foundation that group will set for the future of the program and what you like about each of those girls individually.
MP: "Like I said, when you have four kids who are coming in as freshmen who are all good talents, you figure they're going to get better. Over history, kids who have come in here have all improved over time. As they get better and more experienced as a large group like that - when they're sophomores, juniors and seniors - they're going to be able to lead this program to really good things. As freshmen, they're contributing right away.
"Individually, Sarah is a very steady performer who has improved a lot on her technique. She has a lot of versatility and has shown flashes of brilliance in doubles already. She's been really solid in singles and is a good competitor. She does a good job on and off the court. She's a good student of the game.
"Jo Henderson is just a big, physical talent, who probably has one of the biggest forehands of anybody we've ever had here. She's young and she's going to get a lot better as she matures. She is going to grow into her body. As she gets bigger, stronger and faster, she's really going to be good.
"Caitlyn Williams has kind of a legacy here. She has great talent in her bloodlines. She herself is a great competitor. She has a great instinct for what to do with the ball and how to do it. Caitlyn has worked hard on coming back from a shoulder injury and as she gets healthier, she's going to contribute greatly to the program. You can just see her almost right there to be able to compete with the very best players in the country. She's just time away. There's not anything we really have to do. We just have to get her ready to be able to compete for a longer period of time.
"Jesse is young also. She strikes the ball really well. She needs some time in the weight room to get physically stronger, but she's going to be a good addition to our program."
Q: While it's exciting to have a new group of freshmen, there's a talented group of veterans on the roster that you've been able to develop and work with in Natalie Pluskota, Kata Szekely and Brynn Boren. How will you lean on that group this season?
MP: "Natalie (Pluskota) has been an NCAA finalist in doubles. Brynn (Boren) made both NCAAs in both singles and doubles as a freshman. Kata (Szekely) here in her junior year has become a nationally-ranked player, has competed on the national stage and made the quarterfinals of the National Indoors. Those three have experience. They've competed on good teams. They know what it takes. They're not afraid to go out there and put it on the line. With that experience, it's really helpful with the young ones because they know that those girls are capable of competing with the best. These girls practice with them every day and they teach them. Each one of our freshmen is paired up with an upperclassman in doubles right now and that's by design. It allows us to get some stability out there and they can do some learning on-the-go. The older ones are good coaches out there on the court for their partners. They can give instant feedback. Where we're talking to them on changeovers and stuff, they're going to them every point and re-affirming what we're working on in practice."
Q: Traditionally, the Lady Vols have always played a tough non-conference schedule and that's no different this year. What's your philosophy behind that?
MP: "You're not going to get better unless you're playing the best competition. We have people that need to learn to compete at a high level. If you don't play them, it's hard to get there so we play them. It's really tough. It's going to be tough this year just because we're coming back from some injuries and stuff, but everyone will learn a lot from that. It will really show us where we're at and what we have to do to get up to that level as the season continues."
Q: After three consecutive second-place SEC finishes, where does this year's team stack up in the conference?
MP: "A lot of it just depends on how healthy we are. If we're healthy and we can play one through six with our best six people out there, we can play with everybody. We are a little bit lean. We have seven bodies. We need all of them to be healthy for us to be competitive and that's what we're really going on. If we are healthy, we're competitive with anyone."
Q: What would you define as the main strengths of this team and what's the biggest obstacle?
MP: "We're athletic. We have a keen desire to do well and learn. We'll see how tough we are, as we talked about as a team on our first day back. I think that's the biggest thing. We're going to see how we have to develop a toughness, an attitude and a competitive spirit. Between now and SECs, what do we have to learn? How are we going to handle it when they're all on their third (set)? I don't know yet because they're all new. We'll find that out. I know how our older players handle it. We'll just see how the younger ones do and what we need to do to help get them a little bit tougher."
Q: How good can this team be?
MP: "The wins and losses are going to take care of themselves. Our big focus is on getting better. We have a lot of potential. How far we can go really depends on our health more than anything else. Talent-wise, we have enough to compete on all levels up to the very top. It's really going to count more on how healthy we are and how much those six people are going to be able to get in there and battle."