May 27, 2012
ATHENS, Ga. - Senior Natalie Pluskota, a four-time All-American who compiled the sixth-most doubles wins in school history with 107, saw her Tennessee career come to a completion Sunday at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex as she and Kata Szekely lost to second-seeded Mallory Burdette and Nicole Gibbs (Stanford) 7-6 (1), 6-1 in the NCAA Doubles Tournament Semifinals.
"It's hard," Pluskota said. "I'm not ready to leave, but at the same time I left it all out there and I definitely gave my all for Tennessee."
Pluskota and Szekely's run, which included a 7-6 (2), 6-3 defeat of third-seeded Shinann Featherston and Lauren McHale of North Carolina in the first round, also came to a close. The Tennessee tandem went 18-2 together, with both losses coming to the Stanford duo, and had won 11 consecutive contests coming into Sunday.
Only three Tennessee duos had advanced this far (four times), and Pluskota was a part of three of the Final Four runs.
"It's always disappointing to lose, but at the same time we overcame so much this season," Pluskota said. "We had a great run. We did the best we could. It stinks coming up short, but at the same time it's been a tremendous ride."
That ride gave a glimpse of what could've been for the team in 2012 had it been at full strength all season.
"What they've done at this tournament is kind of what we wanted to have happen all year," co-head coach Mike Patrick said. "Because of injuries, we couldn't. They came through at the end and finished on a great note. We lost to a great team today. We played well, but we would've needed a couple little breaks to go our way and didn't. I'm real proud of our girls and what they did the last few days."
Stanford broke Tennessee's serve to take a 4-2 lead in the opening set before Tennessee broke back and held to tie it at four games.
Burdette and Gibbs quickly held for a 5-4 lead, but Tennessee used a pair of aces to help tie it at five, and then broke again for its first lead of the match.
With UT a game away from clinching the first set on serve, Stanford was able to control the next game and force a tiebreaker.
Pluskota and Szekely played four tiebreakers in their first three matches of the tournament, winning all of them by at least four points. Burdette and Gibbs had other ideas, however, scoring the final six points after splitting the first two.
"We played a lot of tiebreakers in this tournament so I thought we had a chance," Szekely said. "We had some pretty easy mistakes and I think that was basically the turning point."
Although Tennessee won the opening game, it was all Stanford the rest of the way. Burdette and Gibbs won the next six games to advance to the NCAA Doubles Championship match and end an era at Tennessee.
"It's always hard to replace your best player ever at a certain spot," Patrick said. "Someone who has made two doubles semifinals and a finals in her career isn't going to be easy to replace."
Learning from Tennessee's lone senior will be invaluable for Szekely, who will be in the same position next year.
"It was amazing," Szekely said. "She's really experienced and she's great at the net. Every time I had a tough time on the court, she always helped me out. I couldn't have asked for a better doubles teammate."
The loss officially ends the 2012 season for Tennessee. After opening the season 9-3 and vaulting to fifth in the national rankings, injuries forced the Lady Vols to finish 15-13.
Next season, Tennessee returns six student-athletes that played in the lineup at some point in 2012, including All-SEC selections Brynn Boren and Szekely.
"If they come back, they're healthy and able to do the work that we need them to do, we're going to be in great shape," Patrick said. "They certainly have the talent. It's just a matter of being able to get out there, do the work we need to do and get solid enough so that we can compete at this level some more."