June 20, 2012
Over the next month, we'll examine the season that was for each member of the 2012 Tennessee Lady Vol tennis team, including in-depth Q&As. In the first edition, senior Natalie Pluskota reviews her final season on Rocky Top.
2012 ITA Singles & Doubles All-American
2012 ITA Ohio Valley Region Arthur Ashe Leadership & Sportsmanship Award
2012 Second Team All-SEC
2012 SEC Community Service Team
Singles Record/Ranking: 16-11 | No. 37
Doubles Record/Ranking: 28-9 | No. 7 (Szekely) & No. 25 (Williams)
Natalie Pluskota won two matches in the NCAA Singles Tournament in three sets, defeating Utah's Anastasia Putilina and Arizona's Lacey Smith the following day, to become a singles All-American for the first time in her career. The next day, she won her second match of the NCAA Doubles Tournament with Kata Szekely to earn her second All-American distinction in as many days.
Pluskota closed her career on Rocky Top as one of the most decorated players in Tennessee history. She exits Tennessee sixth all-time in doubles wins with 107, was just the fourth Lady Vol ever to earn four All-American honors, reached the NCAA Doubles Tournament semifinals three times, including a trip to the championship match in 2010, and was one of eight Lady Vols all-time to earn All-SEC honors in three years. Her senior season was disrupted by a foot injury, but Pluskota managed to finish the year with a 16-11 record in singles and a 28-9 mark in doubles.
Q: From your perspective, walk me through what your senior season was like for you.
A: "Starting with the fall, we were coming in and doing early morning practices. We had a very young team and we didn't have a lot of experience. Coming in, it was definitely a lot different than it's been in the past. It was a lot of teaching and a lot of trying to get them to understand what this program is about and what was expected. We had a pretty good fall. The girls did good and adjusted well. Their bodies were changing. Their games were changing. Coming into the spring, it was a little bit different. We had a great start. We couldn't have asked for a better one. We were fairly healthy and everyone was excited to play. It just kind of took a turn for the worst, but at the same time, we grew so much as a team and as individuals. I grew so much as a leader and a motivator throughout those times. Yeah, it was frustrating because we were losing to teams that we shouldn't have lost to and things like that. At the same time, it was one of the highlights of the season. You see people's true colors in adversity and things like that. Individually, I feel like I'm a stronger and better leader because of it, but this program is so much stronger and better as a whole because of it. The ending, obviously NCAAs was unbelievable, I couldn't have asked for a better end to my career. It was great playing with Kata. Ending as a two-time All-American is something that I hold close to my heart and I always will."
Q: Everyone tends to dream up their perfect senior year. What were your expectations going into your final season?
A: "Going into the spring, we knew we had a young team, trying to get the freshmen to understand what was expected. Dual-matches are a lot different than the fall. They don't understand that until they're thrown into it. The way we started it was almost like, `Holy cow.' I thought we were going to do really well, but we started so strong. We were Top 10. I thought we had a really good shot of putting up a fight to win the conference. We kind of got setback. Going into the NCAA Tournament we almost had our full team back and there was still part of me thinking we could make a run. We just fell a little bit short."
Q: Being your final season with all of the injuries that took place after a stellar start, how frustrating was that?
A: "It was extremely frustrating just because this is one of the best teams if not my favorite team to play for in the four years I've been here. That was exciting. It was extremely frustrating because we couldn't control what was happening. I always tell the girls that we have to control the controllables. You always run back and think `What could we have differently? What could we have done to prevent this injury?' It was just mixed with a bunch of bad luck. It was frustrating because it just seemed like everything kept going down further and further and we couldn't do anything about it."
Q: As the senior leader, how did you stay positive as an example for the team?
A: "It was tough at times just because I've dealt with several injuries throughout my career, some of them being very crippling. At the same time, I had been there before. I knew exactly what I needed to do and do for the girls. They were actually my inspiration. I knew that they looked up so much as an example and as a leader. If I was going to be negative and have doubt, then we weren't going to be very successful. For me, they were my motivation to work hard in rehab and get healthy so that when it was time for everyone to be healthy, we could make a run."
Q: What was your favorite moment from this season?
A: "National Indoors for me definitely was an unreal experience in that we had such a bad run the year before. We completely flipped it around and had an unbelievable run (this year). That was definitely one of my favorites. The fact that we were so young going into it, we showed people that we belonged and that we could compete with the best of the best. NCAAs of course is a highlight."
Q: When you look back at your career, what do you feel like your greatest accomplishment was?
A: "Becoming a four-time All-American. My two main goals coming into college tennis were to win a national championship and become a four-time All-American. I got the chance to play for national championship (doubles in 2010), which will always be something that I cherish and value. Becoming a four-time All-American is definitely pone of the greatest accomplishments for me personally."
Q: On a similar note, what are you most proud of from your time at Tennessee?
A: "I'm most proud of just becoming a better leader and person while I've been here. I've just grown so much since my freshman year. Seeing the impact that I've had on the girls lives this year is truly rewarding. I think that's one of the greatest things about being here during my career."
Q: How do you want people here to remember Natalie Pluskota?
A: "I want them to remember that I bleed orange and that I just had tons of energy when I played. I wasn't a boring tennis player to watch. I want people to remember that I thoroughly enjoyed playing in front of our fans. It wasn't just about tennis for me."
Q: Talk about the great fan support at Tennessee.
A: "That was hands down one of my most favorite things about playing college tennis. The fan support to me is the most exciting thing. That's why I played tennis. I played for people to enjoy watching college tennis. For my family, they were there every step of the way. They were a big part of that fan group. They brought so much energy and excitement and made it so much more fun. There was nothing better than playing in front of your home crowd. That's something I'll never forget."
Q: Knowing that you had a chance to have an impact on such a young team this year, what did you try to pass off to them the most?
A: "Just have fun and leave it all out there. I'm just extremely passionate about this school and I tried to pass that on."
Q: How rewarding was it for you to end your career with a run in the NCAA Doubles Tournament the way you did?
A: "Extremely rewarding. There for a while, no matter how much time and effort we put in, we just came up short. Going into the tournament, we were playing to win a championship as I have since I've been here. Being in that position again, there's no better way to go out. I gave everything I had. It was definitely a rewarding last tournament."
Q: Knowing that your partner, Kata Szekely, would be in a similar role of being the lone senior next season, what advice did you try to give her?
A: "I've heard her talking to Sonia and some of the girls in that she's watched me a lot this year, how I've handled certain situations, how I communicate with the team, my energy and things like that. She's a great observer, a great leader and she'll do great. I think that alone will help her. I just tell her to love the team and love the program. That takes care of everything else."
Q: You finished your career sixth all-time at Tennessee in doubles wins. What does that accomplishment mean to you?
A: "It means everything to me. I just love doubles. Every single time I stepped out on the court, I would do everything in my power to come up with a win. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's just another thing to show how much I cared about playing for this school and how much I had a will to win."
Q: You've had a great impact on the program at Tennessee, but you were also extremely involved with the local community. Why was that so important to you?
A: "I believe that serving surrounding communities and people in general is extremely important. It's contributed to me becoming who I am now. I always tell people it's the little things. Helping people and the community in general is something that I have a passion for. I always tried to get our team involved. That's always one thing that I've done since I've been at the university is making sure we give back to those that have given us so much."
Q: When you look at the immediate future of this program, what do you see?
A: "I see a lot of room to grow. I see that they can be one of the best teams that UT has ever had. They're super athletic and have a lot of room to be the firsts to do a lot of things."
Q: What's next for you?
A: "I'm going to go on tour. I'm just going to play professional tennis and gain some experience until I want to coach college tennis."
Q: Do you have a timeline on how long you want to play?
A: "I want to play until it's not fun anymore, my body doesn't let me or when I've decided that I've had a great run and I'm ready to do something different. I think that it's going to come down to me wanting to make that next move to coaching college tennis."