At the beginning of each season, Ottawa girls tennis coach Steve Johnson hands out a form to his athletes that asks the question, among others, whether they’d like to play doubles or singles, and if doubles, who’d they like their partner to be.
Jenna Smithmeyer and Rylee O’Fallon each marked “singles” as their preference, but considering the way their season turned out and the remarkable intuition they both seem to share, it mattered little what answer they gave.
They probably knew already what they were destined for.
In their first and what will be their only season playing tennis together for the Pirates, the senior Smithmeyer and junior O’Fallon shined well beyond expectations, not only reaching the IHSA state meet, but making it to the second day, finishing with a winning record there and earning third-team all-state honors in Class 1A doubles.
That’s not a bad one-time effort for a pair of talented athletes that fate seemingly just threw together.
“Based on the improvements each of them made, putting them together was a no-brainer,” Ottawa coach Steve Johnson said. “The principle that opposites attract would apply to them to make a great combination. They get along really well, but their personalities are vastly different in the way they vocalize or internalize what’s going on on the court.
“The consistency of Jenna, who chases down every single ball in every single match she’s played and has a natural touch to lob a ball deep but always a foot inside the baseline, in singles, that might be OK for a little, but eventually opponents will wear you out. But in doubles, if you have that shot and a partner who’s aggressive at the net like Rylee, someone who moves so well at the net and has such a long reach it seems she’s everywhere, that’s a combination that works really well.”
Each had a different partner the year before, with Smithmeyer and Kyleigh Olszewski advancing to state. O’Fallon and Emma Cushing, who this year made state in singles, came up just short of that honor.
But the fact that Smithmeyer and O’Fallon “complete” each other on the court was apparent immediately, starting with a second-place result at Ottawa’s own Nite Lite Invite and growing throughout the season against stiff competition at events such as the Bloomington Gold Invite and Rolling Meadows Invite, right up to the postseason.
“I do have a reach advantage at the net because I’m tall,” O’Fallon said, “but I go hard at the net, and Jenna’s really good on the baseline, and if she’s consistent at the baseline – and she was – I’ll take my shot at the net, and that’s how we won most of our matches. … A lot of it was just understanding where the other person was at mentally and meeting them there.”
“I actually think a large part of it is that she’s a lefty and I’m a righty, so there are a lot of strategies we can use,” Smithmeyer said. “The communication between us is so good, better than in previous years. She understands me.
“I’m probably not the most fun person to play with or the most exciting, but I get into it, and she just dealt with that from the very first day. … She has a lot of patience, and that’s good, and she taught me patience, which was good for me this year and moving forward.”
O’Fallon and Smithmeyer began their run at the Ottawa Sectional with a 6-0, 6-0 win over Morris’ Keira Kjellesvik and Faith Bogard. They then bested St. Bede’s Alyssa Engels/Kristal De La Torre 6-0, 6-0 before taking the semifinal from L-P’s Kaylie Reese/Isabella Pohar 6-3, 6-1, assuring their state trip. They then topped teammates Isabel Heimsoth and Emma Walker 6-1, 6-2 in the final.
But the Ottawa twosome was saving its best for last.
After opening with a 6-1, 6-0 victory over Rockford Boylan’s Elizabeth Fitzgerald/Elise Pecora, they fell 7-5, 6-2 to Fenwick’s Rachel Abraham and Maeve Paris ... but then got hot.
In the consolation bracket, they defeated Bloomington Central Catholic’s Lauren Emm and AnnaClare Keller 6-4, 5-7 (10-1) and Richland County’s Abigail Atwood and Grayce Burgener 4-6, 6-4 (10-8) to advance to Friday.
They dropped their only match that day, 6-1, 6-1 to Rock Island Alleman’s Anne Rouse/Kate Rector, but both agreed the last match Thursday against the Richland girls was the best tennis they’d played all season.
“We said at sectional that we were playing our best tennis, but we knew if we practiced, we could play better, and we saw our best at state,” O’Fallon said. “Honestly, and I’m speaking for both of us, we didn’t think we were going to make it to Friday. We just kept saying, ‘Just win the next one, just win the next one,’ and the next thing we knew, we were into Friday and we leave with a winning record, so I’m very happy with how the season ended.
“They were definitely a better team than us, but we just played better, we wanted it more, and we got it. We hit everything right. We didn’t make errors, they did.”
“I don’t think there was anything we didn’t achieve this season,” Smithmeyer said. “Just that I would have liked the score of our last match at state to have been closer. We weren’t great that day. There were nerves, and coming off four matches in a day is tough. The adrenaline was there, but not as much as Thursday, and sadly we didn’t have that extra match to lose … but I’m happy with how we did.
“It was a lot of fun.”