STANFORD — As a freshman walk-on, Natalie Dillon watched the Stanford women’s tennis team win a national championship from the bench. Now, the St. Ignatius graduate is making unexpected contributions to a Cardinal squad that’s looking to make another run at an NCAA title.
Dillon will get her first taste of NCAA tournament play Friday when the fourth-seeded Cardinal square off against Stony Brook in the opening round at Stanford’s Taube Tennis Center. The junior was thrust into the starting lineup earlier this year after All-American Kristie Ahn’s ankle injury refused to heal — and she seized the opportunity.
“We certainly would not have tied for the conference title without Natalie’s contributions,” Cardinal coach Lele Forood said.
Dillon received scholarship offers from New Mexico, Santa Clara and Denver after a dazzling high school career at St. Ignatius that was capped off with a West Catholic Athletic League Player of the Year award in 2008. But Dillon had dreamed of going to Stanford since she was a first grader, so she decided to take a chance as a walk-on.
“To me, Stanford always represented the best of both worlds — elite academics and athletics,” Dillon said.
She didn’t see the court too often as a freshman, though; the scholarship players at Stanford were competing at a much higher level, but Dillon took it as opportunity to get better.
“I wanted to be the best player I could be, so that I could provide the best practice and warmups for my teammates — that was definitely the role I took,” she said.
As a sophomore, Dillon saw more action, posting a 6-6 singles record, while capturing the Pac-10 Championships Invitational doubles title with teammate Mallory Burdette. By the end of the year, she was offered a scholarship.
But her trajectory from walk-on to starter wasn’t completed until she returned from a quarter in Madrid last winter.
“I definitely felt like I was thrown in there,” she said. “But I just took it one day at a time.”
Despite being overmatched most days, she scrapped together a 7-7 record in duals competition, inspiring teammates with her tenacious play.
Craig Law, Dillon’s high school coach, said her internal motivation — on the court and inside the classroom — sets her apart from any other player he’s ever coached.
“Every athlete gets called a hard worker — but this girl’s really the hardest worker I’ve ever seen,” Law said.
Dillon said winning a national championship this year would be the perfect exclamation point to her improbable journey.
“I don’t even have the words to explain how excited I am,” she said. “But it’s the same thing — I’m going to take each match one at a time.”
WHEN: Runs Friday-May 22
STANFORD: Friday’s first-round matchups at Stanford, St. Mary’s vs. Yale (11 a.m.) and Stony Brook vs. Stanford (2 p.m.)
CAL: Friday’s first-round matchups at Cal, Purdue vs. Pepperdine (10 a.m.) and Cal vs. Sacramento State (1 p.m.)
CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH: May 22 at Georgia