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The Recruiting Trail: Century grad Aney a different kind of two-sport college athlete

The 2010 Sports Illustrated Sports Kid of the Year handled the recruiting process on her own terms, making it "fun and easy." After a four-year career as one of the best Division I tennis players in the country at North Carolina, she finished her college athletics eligibility by playing one season of Division I hockey at UConn.

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Jessie Aney spent this past winter playing college women's hockey at the University of Connecticut. She earlier had played four years of tennis at the University of North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of the University of Connecticut

The Sports Illustrated SportsKid of the Year award in 2010 gave things away.

Yes, Jessie Aney was going to have some choices when it came time to pick a college sport. The Rochester native’s supreme abilities in two sports — tennis and hockey — brought her the national award. Her 4.0 grade-point average, community service and ability to play the piano also factored in.

Aney graduated from high school one year early after taking classes online. But that wasn’t before winning a state singles tennis championship for Rochester Century as an eighth-grader, a state doubles crown with older sister Katie as a freshmen, then switching to boys tennis at Century as a sophomore, helping lead that team to the state tournament.

In 2015, Aney was ranked as high as No. 4 nationally among girls tennis players 18 and younger. She was 16 at the time and in her final year of high school.

In hockey, Aney twice led the state in scoring and was an All-State player. Some regarded her as a potential future Olympian, and big-time college women’s hockey programs Wisconsin and Harvard showed early interest in her.

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In tennis, it was the same thing. Top-level college tennis programs became aware of her as early as her freshman year. Georgia, a national power, once sent recruiters to Rochester simply to watch her practice. That was her sophomore year. Per NCAA rules, that was all they could do then, the initiating of conversations and written back-and-forths with athletes off limits until the summer after their sophomore year.

“I was shocked that (Georgia) did that,” Aney said. “I was a very good recruit, but they had had higher recruits before. It wasn’t like I was on the verge of maybe turning pro or anything. They told me later that they’d never done this before.”

IN CONTROL

As many experiences as Aney took on in sports, including playing in a pack of national tennis and hockey events, she made another experience — being recruited — relatively easy on herself.

That came in good part because Aney didn’t wait long before deciding which athletic endeavor she’d prioritize. Big tennis success as a 15-year-old in the Memphis Clay Court Championships clinched things. Entered in the 18-under division, Aney made her mark by knocking off the top seed in the tournament.

That went a long way toward making up her mind. She’d keep playing hockey, but tennis would become her only year-round sport.

It was a decision that spread quickly among prospective college hockey recruiters. That mostly ended whatever they’d started with her, though a handful of coaches pitched the idea of her playing tennis and hockey at their college.

But Aney dismissed that.

“It became well known that Jessie was going to play tennis in college,” said her father, Tom Aney. “Jessie had come to the conclusion that she wanted to pursue tennis in large part because she loved the self-destiny of tennis. She loved the fact that she could be on the court by herself and problem-solve. Tennis is not like other sports, where you can get substituted out at a crucial point of a match.”

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Tom Aney described Jessie’s college recruitment as “fun and easy.”

That’s because she was able to do it on her terms, initiating contact with colleges as a freshman and sophomore. Again, that was per NCAA rules. She could contact recruiters, but they couldn’t contact her. That limitation goes away as an athlete heads into their junior year. Then, recruiters are able to initiate calls, texts, emails and Instagrams.

CRUCIAL TRIP

But by then, Aney had already committed to her future college, North Carolina. The fall of 2013, Jessie and Tom took a trip to visit colleges Georgia and North Carolina, the top two schools on her list.

Jessie was academically a sophomore at the time.

Both made strong impressions on her, the Georgia visit first, followed the next day by a trip to North Carolina.

“Honestly, when I was on campus, Georgia was the more impressive of the two schools,” Jessie said. “Their facilities were amazing. But I loved the coaches at North Carolina, and I thought the academics there were a little bit better. My visit to a North Carolina tennis practice was impressive. Every part of it was very high energy. And when I visited with the coaches, everything seemed to be about the team, which I liked.”

Aney verbally committed to North Carolina and its head coach Brian Kalbas in January of 2014. A decision was later made by Jessie and her parents to speed up her high school graduation, with her finishing high school the next year online and heading to North Carolina the fall of 2015.

Aney competed for four years with the Tar Heels, but never did put her skates away. She played hockey on North Carolina’s men’s club team throughout her time at Chapel Hill. And once her college tennis eligibility closed in late spring of 2019, she sought to take advantage of another opportunity.

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College athletes who’ve used up their eligibility in one sport are then allowed a year of competing in a different one. Aney wanted in on that, women’s hockey in mind.

It was time for her to be recruited all over again.

And just like the last time, the Rochester native did the initiating. Now, though, things were different. College hockey coaches had lost track of her and were only now becoming aware of her renewed interest in the college game.

Aney made a tough immediate discovery. It was that few were interested in her anymore, in part part due to most rosters already being set.

She did pique the interest of one college coach, however. That was the University of Connecticut’s Chris MacKenzie. He’d been contacted about Aney’s interest in college hockey by the parents of UConn player Natalie Snodgrass, an Eagan native and former high school club teammate of Aney’s. MacKenzie was intrigued and flew to North Carolina to watch her play on her college club team.

He liked what he saw, and offered Aney a roster spot.

She didn’t take long to accept.

After spending much of the first half the season mostly on the bench, the former All-State player became a prominent piece for UConn, climbing all the way to its second line.

“To have a few more years with those girls, I would have loved it,” Aney said.

But it’s over. Aney’s college eligibility has completely dried up.

Still, another adventure looms. Aney has switched back to tennis. It’s time to give the professional game a try.

Related Topics: TENNISCENTURY HIGH SCHOOL
Pat has been a Post Bulletin sports reporter since 1994. He covers Rochester John Marshall football, as well as a variety of other southeastern Minnesota football teams. Among my other southeastern Minnesota high school beats are girls basketball, boys and girls tennis, boys and girls track and field, high school and American Legion baseball, volleyball, University of Minnesota sports (on occasion) and the Timberwolves (on occasion). Readers can reach Pat at 507-285-7723 or pruff@postbulletin.com.
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