Twice as nice: Pluskota advances after earning pair of All-American honors in final yearFrom Staff Reports
ATHENS — Becoming an All-American tennis player in college is nothing new to two-time recipient Natalie Pluskota.
But the third time on Thursday was quite the charm for the University of Tennessee senior.
The Newnan native and former Northgate High star became the fifth player in Tennessee’s women’s history to advance to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Singles Tournament and to also earn All-American honors in singles and doubles.
A tenacious competitor throughout her varsity career before having her jersey retired by her alma mater, Pluskota rallied to defeat Arizona sophomore Lacey Smith 5-7, 6-1, 7-5 in her morning singles match.
“I’m pumped. I came here to win and I did that today. I’m extremely excited to be an All-American again. It was a big goal of mine coming in my freshman year [from Northgate]. To me it’s really, really important and I accomplished that. But I don’t want to stop here.”
In the afternoon, she then teamed with junior Kata Szekely to upset third-seeded and No. 4 nationally-ranked Shianne Featherston and Lauren McHale of North Carolina in doubles, 7-6, 6-3 to also reach the round of 16 in the NCAA Doubles Tournament.
Pluskota, who previously a two-time All-American in doubles, also becomes the second Lady Vols player to reach the Sweet 16 in both singles and doubles in the same season.
She’ll face third-seeded Nicole Gibbs of Stanford in today’s national quarterfinal match, also at Georgias. It came after Pluskota rallied from a set down in Thursday’s second-round matchup with Smith. She dominated the second set before racing out to a 5-2 lead in the third.
“She’s done it [before] in doubles and to have her do it in singles in her senior year is just great,” said Tennessee coach Mike Patrick of Pluskota. “She’s improved every year and she’s been able to overcome injuries, so we’re just proud of her.”
The doubles victory over Featherston and McHale was equally impressive despite winning in straight sets.
A back-and-forth first set found the Lady Vols pair holding serve and trailing 5-4 before winning the next two games. An eventual tiebreaker had both tandems splitting the first four points before Pluskota and Szekely took the next five to win the set.
Pluskota and Szekely then improved their record to 16-1 with their ninth consecutive victory after rallying back from two games down in the second set. The duo took the next three games and six of the last seven to pull off the upset.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” Pluskota of her third All-American honor. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love this university and I try to go out every day and give it everything I’ve got.”