Sept. 14, 2010
By Jon Cooper
Jillian O’Neill knows all about playing big.
On the tennis court, it’s what she’s all about.
“I have a pretty big game. I hit a big ball,” said the 5-11 native of Montreal, who is about to embark on her first season at the D-I level for Georgia Tech. “I think in doubles and stuff that will be good to set up my partners, especially at the net. They can take advantage of that. We have a couple of big hitters. I contribute to the team well that way.”
O’Neill’s big game allowed her to make the inevitable jump from big fish in the little pond — she won the 2009 Singles and Doubles JUCO Championships while playing for Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Fla. And was the 2009 FCCAA Player of the Year — to the big time, playing in the ACC.
It was during her run to the JUCO championships at last year’s Small College Nationals in Mobile, Alabama, that Georgia Tech Women’s Tennis Coach Bryan Shelton got a look at her and started to imagine the possibilities.
“When I got there, she was in the finals of the tournament and the first thing I noticed was, ‘Wow, she’s really fit, tall, strong, an aggressive player,'” Shelton recalled. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have someone who has those physical attributes and hits the ball that clean?'”
O’Neill had positive thoughts about the possibility of playing in Atlanta for Shelton.
“I’d heard great things about Bryan, so that’s basically how I decided to come here,” she said. “I’d heard such great things about him, great things about the team and how they really focus on coming together as a group and they’re kind of like a family and I liked that atmosphere.”
O’Neill’s road to D-I seems destined to include a stop in Georgia, but, originally that stop was supposed to be in Athens. She committed to play at the University of Georgia, but just a technicality in transferring her high school credits left her a few hours short and ineligible to play at the Division I level.
The detour through Tampa, allowed her to catch up credit-wise (she made the Dean’s List and the Honor Roll at Hillsborough) and fulfilled Shelton’s dream of coaching her instead of creating the nightmare of facing her as a Bulldog.
“We’re always competing against those guys,” said Shelton. “I guess we won this battle. But they’ve won their fair share as well. Things didn’t work out for her in Athens.”
Shelton is determined to make things work out for her as a Yellow Jacket and believes O’Neill can contribute right away.
“She’s an exceptional talent,” he said. “She’s almost six feet tall, she hits the ball as well as any college player I’ve ever seen, as far as just striking the ball clean and hitting a very big ball. There aren’t too many girls at this level that hit the ball as well as she does.
“I think that she’s going to play high in the lineup,” he continued. “She’s going to be a double-threat. She’s going to be effective on the doubles court and she’s going to be effective on the singles court. She just hits such a big ball. She’s going to be able to over-power a lot of players.”
O’Neill has been overpowering players since she picked up a racket at age six.
“I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to play because I just enjoyed it,” she said. “My parents told me that I was coordinated and I was good compared to the other kids. So that pushed me, too.”
About the only player she couldn’t beat was the person with whom she played the most, her brother, Rory, who is her senior by two years.
“It wasn’t really a rivalry. I was always trying to beat him but he was always better than I was,” she said. “He always stayed a little bit ahead of me.
“He had me. But he doesn’t play anymore. So I’ve got him now,” she added, with a laugh.
Shelton has O’Neill now and, with some minor strategic adjustments, is looking forward to big things.
“Her technique is sound,” he said. “We’ve got to teach her how to play the game a little bit better as far as playing the percentages, making the percentage plays on the court, understanding shot selection, what she needs to do with the ball, understand her game and what her strengths are and how to utilize them against her opponent.
“Because she’s a great striker of the ball. We want to make her a great player. Those two sometimes can be different,” he added. “It’s nice when you can strike the ball as well as she can AND you understand how to play the game because then you have a chance to be exceptional.”
O’Neill will get her chance to play for real on Friday in the Georgia Tech Invitational at the Bill Moore Tennis Center.
She’ll also get her chance to play in Athens when Georgia Tech participates in the USTA/ITA Regional Championships in late October (the 22nd through the 25), and will meet the Bulldogs on Feb. 4 (the latter she stated will not be a big deal).
“She’s kind of done the long route in getting here,” said Shelton. “I think it’s just going to make her appreciate being here that much more once she’s gone through it and I’m sure she’ll have a little bit of motivation to do well with this opportunity against Georgia and all others.”