by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Strong tennis families are one reason Elk River keeps winning in this sport year after year.
Katie O’Connell, a big asset in doubles on four state tournament teams, is the second edition from such a family, follwing her brother Brendan. Her father, Kevin, and uncles are tennis enthusiasts, and their love of the game radiated down to the four O’Connell kids. Katie got started in second grade when dad organized a team for kids in her school to play against other schools.
O’Connell finished her Elk career last week with a 97-38 record and had a key role in her team qualifying for state once more. The last two years she was all-conference and team co-captain.
Brendan is the Elk boys’ all-time win leader with 164 and plays for St. Thomas. Becca, a sophomore, has been her Elk varsity teammate for two years. Fifth-grader Joe is next.
The 5-foot-5, 140-pound athlete helped Elks post a 97-14 record in her tenure, 33-3 in conference. Her sophomore year the Elks were 27-2 and state runners-up behind Edina. This season they were 23-5 and nabbed third place.
Katie is very aggressive, and has become very comfortable with serving and volleying,” said coach LeRoyce Chapman. “She has a great encouraging personality for doubles. She works very hard and is incredibly reliable.”
O’Connell was 23-5 at No. 3 in ninth grade, and 21-9 at No. 3 and 2 in 10th grade, mainly with Marleen Millner both years. She moved up to No. 1 the last two years with Taylor Lussier-Flesher, going 23-15 as a junior and 29-9 this year. They won section doubles this year and played at state, losing two three-setters.
“The main thing is, we kept each other positive,” she said about her partnership with Lussier-Flesher. “We would put things in the bigger picture – to have fun, play our best, never hang our heads, and stay in focus.”
With all those state trips, she had some nice choices when asked about career highlights.
“Playing in the state finals my sophomore year, for sure,” she said. “But sectionals this was probably the top one.”
That’s because it came down to her match both times as the Elks squeezed past Duluth East and Forest Lake, each 4-3. O’Connell teamed with Lussier-Flesher to win against East 2-6, 7-5, 6-4, rallying from a 4-1 hole in the third set, and with Camllle Kraljic to win 6-2, 6-4 against Forest Lake. Each time all the others were done, ringing the court and cheering on every stroke.
“It was a lot of stress but we knew everybody was behind us and cheering for us, and we had to win to get to state.”
Playing doubles all the way through her career was “kind of what I wanted, and also where I was needed,” said O’Connell.
Tennis has been her lone sport, but certainly a rewarding one. And now it’s all over. She plans to continue playing tennis as a rec sport and possibly in college if she goes to a D-III school.
“It doesn’t seem real yet, that it’s over,” she said, “but looking back, at all the things we did, it’s really been a blast.”
THE O’CONNELL SCORECARD
Personal file – Age: 18 … Family: parents Kevin and Janet; brothers Brendan, 20, and Joe, 11; sister Becca, 16 … Sport: football … Other activities: National Honor Society … Academics: 3.9 GPA … College plans: undecided … Career goal: occupational therapy
Favorite stuff – Class: calculus … Movie: “Bridesmaids” … Music: country, especially Keith Urban; alternative, especially Amberlyn .. Reading: “The Help” and “Eat, Pray, Love” .. Athlete: Roger Federer … Food: Jimmy John’s.. Drink: Smoothies … Kickback: piano … Place she’d like to visit: Rome