Aney taking talents to North Carolina
That little girl who was dashing around as a seventh, eighth and ninth grader, taking the Minnesota high school tennis scene by storm? She's not a little girl anymore.
Five inches taller now, and with arms and shoulders taut with muscle, Jessie Aney — the one-time Sports Illustrated "SportsKid of the Year" — is a young woman.
But one thing is unchanged. Aney is still stealing the tennis show. The only difference now is it's at a national level.
There are three big notables concerning the 16-year-old and former state Class AA singles and then doubles champion: She's ranked fifth in the country among USTA players 18 and under. She's graduating next spring — one year early — from the online education program (Minnesota Virtual Academy) in which she isenrolled. And she's accepted a full-ride scholarship to play tennis beginning the fall of 2015 at powerhouse University of North Carolina. That commitment came this school year.
Oh, and then there's this. Also considered one of the state's top hockey prospects, Aney will hang up the skates after playing one more season at Century next winter. Aney ended her tennis high school playing career after winning that state doubles title with older sister Katie two falls ago. No real challenges remained for her at that level.
Beyond high school
Still, Aney knows that there remains plenty to work toward in tennis, only now it's at the national and possibly one day the international level. That's why she continues to practice three hours per day, seven days a week, mostly hitting with her father Tom Aney.
Turns out that Tom isn't one of the challenges. Not anymore.
"Jessie is a lot stronger and taller, and that has added a lot to her game," Tom said. "There is no doubt that she's hit another level. A year ago I could kind of stay on the court with her. But not anymore."
Jessie's strides — which include her hitting with more power and displaying a more attacking offensive style — have shown up in the myriad national tournaments she's taken on. The highlight so far has been her going unbeaten last month in singles in a tournament in Mobile, Ala. Her team, which was assembled once the players arrived at the tournament, finished as champion as well.
Aney also got the reward of participating in her first professional tournament in early March, in Gainsevillle, Fla. There, besides playing singles (she won three matches in the qualifying portion, then lost in the first round), Aney teamed in doubles with fellow Rochester player and childhood best friend Ingrid Neal. The two reached the tournament's semifinals before finally being knocked off.
"I definitely sometimes think to myself, 'Wow, this is my life,' " Aney said. "I'm having all of these experiences and enjoying it so much. I appreciate all of these opportunities."
Chapel Hill awaits
The next big opportunity will come in just over a year, when she makes her way to Chapel Hill, and dons the powder blue and white North Carolina uniform.
Considered to have one of the top tennis programs in the country, North Carolina's offer was too much for Aney to resist. Her commitment came after she also gave consideration to staying close to home, and playing at Minnesota. She also came close to saying yes to Georgia.
But in the end, North Carolina just felt right.
"North Carolina seemed like the better fit for me," Aney said. "I loved it there. The coaches there really develop your game. The tennis is amazing. And (Chapel Hill) is a beautiful place."