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Alum Barb Pleva Finds Home on Tennis Court at Mercer


West Windsor, N.J. - When Barb Pleva '03 (Office Systems Technology) began taking classes at Mercer County Community College in 1997, her goal was straightforward. All three of her children were off at college and it was time for Pleva to earn some college credits of her own. As the office administrator for her husband's firm, Terra Nova Technical, a commercial groundwater sampling company in Allentown, she wanted to update her computer skills and enhance efficiency in the office.

Pleva completed her studies in Office Systems Technology in 2003 and earned President's List status for academic excellence. But now, seven years later, Pleva still finds herself actively involved at Mercer - not as a student, but as a valued volunteer coach for women's and men's tennis. She has touched the lives of many young people, teaching them both tennis and life skills. "I'm the lucky one," she says. "I get so much enjoyment out of seeing them get better. You get back what you give. And I get a lot back."

Serendipitously Pleva's first semester at Mercer coincided with the reinstatement of the women's tennis program after an 11-year hiatus. A strong doubles player, she offered to help out at a few practices before they left for Nationals in May. The team, under then new Head Coach Marc Vecchiolla, was strong, coming in second that year in the national tournament. (Vecchiolla is also the coach for men's tennis, having taken over the reins from retiring coach Stan Dlugosz in 2008.)

In 1998, Pleva was asked to join the team. She hesitated, not wanting to take the place of a younger player. "But they felt I could help them win," she recalls. "And we did dominate that fall." Then in the spring, they went to nationals -- and the Vikings won their first national title. They did it again the following year.

The experience of winning is something Pleva will never forget. "I had never dreamt of doing anything like this. It's unusual at any level of a sport to win a national championship."

Barb Pleva '03
Barb Pleva, back row, second from right, with the 2004 national champs. Also pictured are Head Coach Marc Vecchiolla, left, and Assistant Coach Ralph Bencivengo, far right.

Originally intending to take just a few college courses, Pleva maintains that "tennis is definitely part of what kept me at Mercer." Players must maintain a minimum of twelve credits per semester and, as a member of a winning team, the season spans over two semesters - with regional matches in the fall and practice for nationals throughout the spring.

When her playing days ended and Vecchiolla asked her to be an assistant coach, Pleva was thrilled. "I had only one question: What do you want me to do?"

Pleva's main assignment is to work with the beginners, athletes who are developing their games and working their way into the line-up. She recalls a player from this past season who was athletic, but had never played tennis before. "She was so easy to teach. She told me she wants to be back next year and that she's so glad because tennis is something she will have for the rest of her life."

Pleva recalls another player who came from a tennis family, but had not played the game much herself. "She would climb a fence to return a ball," Pleva said. By the time she finished her second season, she was an All-American.

Pleva's mothering skills have come in handy. "I am a calming influence in a nerve-wracking sport. I provide emotional support. For some players, all they have to do is see me on the sidelines and it reminds them they have to stay calm."

Pleva's time commitment is significant. She tries to be at is at every practice and every match. "I very seldom miss it," she says. Having been a volunteer for the women for many years, she also took on the role for the men's team when Vecchiolla took over. With joint practices throughout the year, she is able to reach more players at the same time.

According to Pleva, the rewards have been consistent season after season. There have been some real highs -- including four national titles for the women, the last one in 2004. The men have also had their share of successes, including trips to nationals and individual titles. Still, in other years, teams have not been as strong.

But wins don't matter that much to Pleva. Indeed, this past season's inexperienced women's team didn't win a single match. But Pleva says it is one of her favorite groups. "If they are available, they are at practice. They like each other. They encourage each other and they want to learn. We attract great student athletes. We are so fortunate at Mercer."

That kind of positive attitude infuses the program under Vecchiolla, whose philosophy of learning and having fun is shared by Pleva and Ralph Bencivengo, the other dedicated assistant coach. "We want them all to play their best and to be the best person they can be whether they win or lose," Pleva explains. "We don't allow or condone poor sportsmanship or bad language. We want them to learn to control their anger and emotions. The racquet is never to leave their hands. If it does, there are consequences."

Looking back on her original reason for coming to Mercer -- to learn office skills -- Pleva says her experience couldn't have been better. She learned bookkeeping and data entry, and how to make templates and use technology that increased her efficiency. She notes that her professors went out of their way to support her. "Professors at Mercer want you to succeed," she said.

With Mercer's flexible scheduling, she was able to continue working while taking many courses part-time in the evenings and online. "It was very doable," Pleva said. Her Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society certificate still hangs on the wall in her office.

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