by Jeremy Acree
Senior Chattanooga tennis player Kate Ksiezopolski walked up to the fence where teammate Jenna Nurik was playing and talked calmly to her, trying to get her to relax. Nurik is a freshman, and she had dropped the first set and was struggling to get into a rhythm against an opponent from UAB in a match at the UTC Tennis Courts.
Nurik had fallen 4-6 in the first set, but she went on to dominate the next two and get the win, 4-6, 6-3, 6-0.
These talks and reminders have become commonplace recently for Nurik, but they may be the difference between struggling through the first year of college tennis and being one of the top players in the Southern Conference.
It's something to be expected in nearly all college sports. The freshmen get a little frustrated and need the calming senior leadership. But what was different about this situation was that Nurik was in the No. 1 singles spot, where she has been since she arrived at UTC less than a year ago.
The Roswell, Ga., native was the third-ranked player coming out of the state in her 2009 class, but she came to Chattanooga with no expectations.
"My goal was to be .500 tops," Nurik said. "And have fun and try to get through the semester. It never crossed my mind that I would play the one spot."
In the fall, however, she earned the top spot and has not relinquished it since, compiling a 17-7 record over both the fall and spring seasons. Modest goals turned to carrying a team on her shoulders.
"I was just thinking I'm gonna come in as three or four and I'll just work my way up and do what they need me to do," Nurik said. "So when I got the one spot I was like, 'I really need to step up.'"
A 17-8 doubles record to go along with her singles success shows she has been up to the challenge. But she has not done it without help.
When she talks about keys to her success, it isn't a forehand or serve or backhand that gets mentioned first.
"Positive attitude is a huge one," Nurik said. "[The team] can tell when I'm upset and they teach me how to be positive. Some of the critical losses we've had this season have hit me harder than it hit them. And they just told me to bounce back from it."
Nurik's talent was obvious to UTC coach Jeff Clark.
"She's gotten a little better with each week and with each month," said Clark. "She's just gotten more well-rounded as a player and I'm not at all surprised by her success.
"I think she has the talent to be one of the top players in the Southern Conference every year."
Nurik doesn't often play like a freshman. But she is not shy about admitting there is still room to grow.
"I'm not as positive as everyone else," Nurik said. "[When I drop a set] I'm thinking what changed, what did I do that didn't work out as well."
So when she is chasing down balls and out-working her opponents, there may be more behind it than talent and skill.
"[The team] is really like a family," Nurik said. "Everyone is so supportive. It's real easy when everyone is behind you."
Jeremy Acree is a senior Communications and Sports Administration major at UTC who is completing a semester internship in the UTC Athletics Communications Office.