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Love at first sight

PRINCETON — Jen O’Neil was a volleyball player coming through the junior high ranks. The only thing she did with tennis balls was hit them in her front yard with a baseball bat when she was little.

Then she picked up a tennis racket for the first time and never put it down.

She played three years on the varsity squad at Princeton, qualifying twice for the IHSA State Tournament. She now caps her career as the 2013 BCR Tennis Player of the Year.

“I decided to try something new and coach (Beth) Peacock was a big part in bringing me into tennis,” she said. “I tried it the first day and absolutely loved it. I decided I was going to make that a part of my high school career, and I’m glad I did. It was a total game-changer.”

PHS head coach Connie Lind said O’Neil improved her level of play over the course of the last three years of varsity by taking lessons in the offseason and playing a high level of USTA tennis out of the Quad Cities.

“After her sophomore season, she knew what she wanted out of tennis and accomplished it,” Lind said. “Jen is a true leader on our team. While playing a match she very seldom made the same mistake twice she was always thinking. When you see her play tennis, you can tell she loves the sport and is good at it.

“I’ve enjoyed getting to know Jen as a tennis player but also as a young lady.”

O’Neil posted a 19-4 record at No. 1 singles over the regular season and finished 22-7 overall. She won the Coal City Quad and LaSalle-Peru Invitational and took second at the Sterling Newman Invitational.

The No. 1 seed at sectional, O’Neil settled for a runner-up finish to Ottawa’s Molly Angell. Angell won their sectional title showdown 6-0, 6-1.

O’Neil became the first Princeton girl to qualify for state in consecutive years since Evinne Dimmig 2008 and 2009. She dropped both matches at state this year, though she played Dunlap’s Grace Park to three sets in second-round play, falling 6-2, 5-7, 4-6.

“I’ll definitely always remember it. It was a good high school accomplishment, and I’m glad to have got the experience,” she said. “I’ll never forget qualifying for state both years and all the people that helped me accomplish my goals, like my family and my coaches.”

O’Neil said she is really going to miss playing high school tennis because it was like family. She would like to play in college if the opportunity arises as she pursues a degree in elementary education.

Runner-up for Player of the Year

Rachel Dose placed fourth at sectional to become the first St. Bede player to qualify for state in a decade, boy or girl. She came in as the No. 3 seed at sectional and won the first two matches to qualify.

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