Sept. 27, 2011
BY ANDREW LENTZ
Influenced by her twin Nic and older brother Ed, Natalie Pluskota wished that she was on ole Rocky Top since the age of 9.
"My brothers loved Tennessee football," the senior Lady Vols tennis player said. "Being the only girl, I wanted to do everything they did. I wanted to like everything they liked. Tennessee was always in my house and always around. From that point forward, I latched onto Tennessee and just rode with it."
Pluskota's hometown of Newnan is one of the fastest growing cities in Georgia. But much like a fellow Newnan native, country music star Alan Jackson, Pluskota wanted to make her mark in the state of Tennessee.
"I love it," Pluskota said. "It was the best decision I've made for sure. It was always a dream of mine. It was Tennessee or nowhere. For me, I made up my mind a long time ago.
"It's always been Tennessee."
Mike Patrick and Sonia Hahn-Patrick couldn't be more thankful for her decade-old decision. Whether it's encouraging teammates with her signature "Ahh yeah" jest, or giving advice, UT's lone senior has been an extension of her co-head coaches on and off the court.
"Natalie is a leader," Patrick said. "She has just done a super job taking this young team and getting them to a point where we didn't really even have to baby step through our first day of practice."
Patrick and Hahn-Patrick aren't upset about her production, either.
A two-time All-American and All-SEC selection, Pluskota began her senior season this past weekend at the Furman Fall Classic by defeating No. 6 Zoe De Bruycker (UNC), the highest-ranked opponent she's beaten at UT. She finished second in the tournament's top singles flight after losing in the title match Sunday.
"She's been working really hard this summer and had some great wins in doubles," Hahn-Patrick said. "I feel like this is the best prepared she's come for this tournament. She really wanted to just try to win her flight. She just came prepared mentally and physically and took it to them."
Pluskota organized workouts when the team arrived back on campus in August. Her goal was making her teammates better, and she spent the summer doing the same thing for herself.
"Right after NCAAs, I decided that I was going to start playing in professional tournaments to try to get ready for this year," Pluskota said. "It's just exciting. I worked hard all summer and coming back from my injury, it's just that first step forward of just showing that I can compete at the tour at a high level."
Missing 14 matches as a sophomore in the spring of 2010 with a torn hip flexor, she experienced some brief doubts in her mind about whether she'd be able to return to the level of play that made her successful in her first two years at UT, until one of her strongest traits took over.
After surgery that summer, Pluskota's drive to get back to that level pushed her through rehab.
"You're kind of shocked (at first)," Pluskota said. "You go from playing all the time to not playing. You learn that you can overcome anything when you put your mind to it. I just worked hard in rehab, dedicated all of my energy into that and tried to get better. This summer was just that first stepping stone getting back to normal and going to that next level."
That stepping stone included her first career professional title in July, a doubles win at the Norman Wilkerson Memorial Tournament in which she and Florida's Alexandra Cercone knocked off the tournament's top three seeds to win on the USTA Futures circuit. Less than a month later, she defeated the No. 6-ranked doubles player in the world, Yaroslava Shvedova.
An exciting summer, however, prevented Pluskota from spending a lot of time at home, where she spent "maybe seven days." But that doesn't stop her family from seeing her.
One of her greatest influences to come to Tennessee, Ed was in the stands for the flight one singles title match at Furman, "influencing" louder than anyone, along with Pluskota's parents, Edward and Sherry.
Nic was busy working towards his certification in scuba diving from the Fayetteville Dive Center in Georgia, one thing Natalie made clear that her brother could not persuade her to relish.
Although the Pluskota family didn't get to see her win Sunday, its attendance to most Tennessee matches assures that they'll get to see plenty of victories.
And as Pluskota embarks on her senior season on Rocky Top, she's right where she wants to be: Home at Tennessee.