Thai native leads Saints into NCAA tennis tournament

When Jesse Robinson first heard people rave about St. Scholastica freshman Ploy Suthijindawong's tennis game last fall, he didn't believe it. Robinson thought Ploy, a Thailand native who works for him in the Saints' sports information office, was...

When Jesse Robinson first heard people rave about St. Scholastica freshman Ploy Suthijindawong's tennis game last fall, he didn't believe it.

Robinson thought Ploy, a Thailand native who works for him in the Saints' sports information office, was just too pleasant to ever be a tenacious athlete.

But Ploy will lead St. Scholastica into the NCAA Division III tennis tournament when the Saints play Martin Luther at 3 p.m. today in St. Peter, Minn. The Upper Midwest Athletic Conference player of the year is 18-1 in singles matches.

"When Ploy gets angry, that's when she plays her best," Robinson said. "When an opponent gets on her bad side, I feel bad for that opponent. She's the nicest kid in the world, but when she gets on the court, she's a different person."

Robinson saw that first-hand. The former all-time singles wins leader at Kewaunee (Wis.) High School, Robinson challenged Ploy to a friendly pickup match last fall, a small-college version of Griggs vs. King. Maybe Robinson was rusty, or maybe Ploy is just that good. She toyed with him.


"It wasn't even close," Robinson said. "She was probably going 60 to 70 percent, and she was still working me. I played the No. 1 singles player in the state of Wisconsin my freshman year, and she hits the ball as powerful as any of the guys I played with in high school. She just destroys the ball."

Ploy, 19, hails from Thailand's capital city, Bangkok. She has been playing tennis since she was 10.

Ploy is the only St. Scholastica athlete who is mentioned by her first name in sports releases, and "Ploy" isn't even her real first name. It is Thanyalak. She earned the nickname "Ploy of Troy" as a foreign exchange student at Duluth Central in 2007-08.

"The first day Ploy got off the plane and started hitting balls around, you knew she was something special," said Central tennis coach Paul Sandholm.

In keeping with an unwritten rule of not playing foreign exchange students in singles matches, Ploy primarily played doubles at Central, but she proved herself against the state's top singles players in exhibitions and tournaments.

Despite being hobbled by an ankle injury suffered the week before, she and partner Devan Pfab nearly advanced to the state tournament, but like most young players, Ploy prefers playing singles.

"I'm not as comfortable playing doubles," Ploy said. "When I lose in singles, it is my fault. Whether you win or lose, it is all about yourself."

Ploy struggles with English and admits the language barrier is difficult, but she is getting better. Robinson said with her work ethic, she will be fine. In the St. Scholastica sports information office, Ploy works with photos, updates portions of the Saints' Web site and punches in tennis results.


"Ploy is absolutely perfect," Robinson said. "Even if she is a little slower with the English language-barrier, she just focuses in and works that much harder to overcome it. She does good work."

Ploy is studying accounting and economics at St. Scholastica. She received interest from other colleges but knew staying in Duluth, where she has made friendships, would help her as she gets better command of the language.

"I knew coming to the U.S. would be a good opportunity to help me speak English better. I knew it would be easier to learn faster," Ploy said. "I like St. Scholastica. It is small and has a beautiful campus. There are people helping me where I can't help myself. If I have question, you can ask them any time."

* Ploy found out Wednesday she made the NCAA Division III women's individual championships May 22-24 in Lawrenceville, Ga. She is the first women's player in school history to earn a bid and is one of 32 singles players in the field.

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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