In 1995, I watched an explosive young female athlete burst onto the Minnesota sports scene. I may have seen the same thing happen on Thursday.
Fifteen years ago, the athlete was Natalie Darwitz. She was then the seventh-grade star of the Eagan High School girls’ hockey team. Natalie, of course, went on to play hockey and win two NCAA championships at the University of Minnesota and become a star for the U.S. in world competition and the Olympics. She’s now an assistant coach for the Gophers women’s hockey team, which practices and plays at Ridder Arena on the U of M campus.
A concrete wall separates Ridder Arena and the U of M’s Baseline Tennis Center, site of this week’s Class 2A girls’ state tennis tournament. I don’t want to take too big of a leap here – or put Darwitz-caliber pressure on another young athlete – but the only thing separating Natalie Darwitz and Jessica Aney might be years.
Aney is 12 years old; she won’t be 13 until April. She is a seventh-grader at Friedell Middle School in Rochester and the No. 2 singles player on the tennis team at Rochester Century High School. She is gaining national fame … but more on that in a bit.
Jessica is 4-foot-11 and she stands two victories away from being a state champion. On Thursday she defeated Edina junior Meghana Vasireddy and Minnetonka junior Jessa Richards, both by 6-3, 6-3 scores. Aney will meet Mounds View junior Melanie Yates in Friday morning’s semifinal round at Baseline.
Another Century player, junior Kelsey Frechette, advanced to the semifinals on the other side of the bracket. She will meet Blaine sophomore Mary Liz Swanson.
Despite Aney’s age, she is not intimidated by a steady stream of older competition.
“It’s really fun, but I’ve been playing against really good players my whole life,” she said Thursday.
Century coach Kyle Anderson has watched Aney for years, but even he was impressed by what he saw Thursday.
“Nothing fazes her,” he said. “She’s playing like a state tournament veteran. She’s a great athlete and from day one she has shown the determination to play every ball and use her time efficiently.”
Jessica has been playing tennis since she was 5. Her dad, Tom, played tennis at Minnesota-Duluth and her mom, Karen, was a tennis player at Luther College in Iowa. Jessica’s big sister Katie is a freshman on the tennis and hockey teams at Century and kid brother Nick is a fifth-grader who also plays both sports.
Watching Jessica on the court is like watching Darwitz on the ice 15 years ago. Natalie was tiny but equipped with speed, explosiveness and determination. Jessica is all business on the court, using tremendously quick feet to cover lots of ground.
“I think I’m really fast defensively,” she said to no one’s surprise.
Now, about that national acclaim. A photographer from Sports Illustrated For Kids was at Baseline on Thursday, and Jessica was the assignment. She is one of three finalists for the 2010 SI For Kids Sports Kid of the Year Award. More than 2,000 kids were nominated for the award; the other finalists are a 9-year-old runner from Texas and a 13-year-old football player from New York.
Jessica is ranked No. 1 in the U.S. Tennis Association Northern section (Minnesota, the Dakotas and northwestern Wisconsin) in the girls 12 and 14 age groups. She is ranked 15th nationally in the girls 12 group. She has won more than 20 USTA-sanctioned tournaments.
Academically, she gets all A’s and had the highest individual score as a member of the 2009 Math Masters state championship team. She plays the piano and is a percussionist in the school band. She sings in the church choir and does volunteer work.
Getting back to the Darwitz comparison: Jessica is one heck of a hockey player, too. She has played for high-level age-group teams and she was the MVP as her team won the 2010 International Cup 12-under Tier 1 AAA championship. It’s safe to say she will see lots of ice for the Century High School team this winter.
The high school tennis season ends Friday. Girls’ hockey practice begins on Monday.
Hey Jessica, take a couple of days off. We know we’ll be hearing from you again.
(To see video and photos of Jessica Aney, as well as photos of other players from Thursday's tennis tournament, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.)
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 110
*Miles John has driven: 4,182
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