BELLEVILLE — Kayleigh Thurwalker has hit millions of tennis balls, taken hundreds of lessons and beaten countless high-quality players since her freshman season at Belleville West three years ago.
But when Thurwalker stepped to the service line to take on Alexandra Kerr of Rock Island Alleman in her first match at the IHSA State Tournament earlier this fall, she was still nervous.
"Yeah, I was. It's always fun to play good players and of course I want to play well. So there is always the pressure and nerves that go along with that,'' Thurwalker said. "I wanted to do better than I had last year and that meant winning three rounds in the main draw.
"I really wanted to get past the third round.''
On a chilly October afternoon in suburban Chicago, Thurwalker did just that. The first Maroons singles player to reach the round of 16 since Mallory Weber, Thurwalker then completed her 2013 state finals experience with a 4-2 mark, top 16 finish and second team all-state recognition.
The strong finish coupled with an overall singles mark of 32-4 and five tournament titles, earned Thurwalker her second straight Belleville News-Democrat Player of the Year honor.
The Southwestern Conference and IHSA Sectional champion, Thurwalker said her junior season was a very successful one.
"I was actually pretty happy with this year. Even more then last,'' Thurwalker said. "I just feel like my overall game got better. I was able to get to the net a little more often and my serve was better.
"But there is always room for improvement.''
With Thurwalker and seniors Gabi Papachrisanthou and Blair Hollenbeck leading the way, the Maroons were again among the elite teams in southern Illinois under first-year coach Jenny Mennerick.
A former standout both at O'Fallon High School and McKendree University, Mennerick said Thuwalker's game improved in all areas this season.
"Kayleigh was just a much better all-around player,'' Mennerick said. "Her footwork is just phenomenal. Her work ethic is incredible and thus she was a better player.
"The thing about Kayleigh is that she always wants to improve. I know that she'll continue to work hard in the offseason and that she'll be even a better player next year."
For Thurwalker, tennis is a year-long adventure. In addition to taking lessons and hitting with teaching professionals John Connors and former Belleville West coach Bob Keefe, Thurwalker plays a full schedule of summer tournaments -- several of which take place at the Dwight Davis Center in St. Louis.
"No, I don't get tired of the sport. I'm not burnt out,'' Thurwalker said. "I'm hitting now several times a week and I plan to play in higher-level tournaments this year just to get the experience.''
"I just love the sport.''
Mennerick said she saw many improvements in Thurwalker's game during the 2013 season.
"Her consistency was much better this season,'' Mennerick said. "To be able to play at the NCAA Division I level in a couple of years, she's got to continue to work on her consistency and her aggressiveness.
"Kayleigh has to be able to come to the net a little more and to play more serve and volley would help. But if she continues to work on her consistency, there is no doubt in my mind that she'll be able to play at the D-1 level. Right now most of the interest is coming from D-II schools. But as she continues to play at a higher level and have success, hopefully more NCAA Division I interest will come."
Thurwalker said she would like to go someplace with a warm climate to play her college tennis. But the Maroons' junior also knows there is still a lot of work to be done.
"I have to work on my conditioning and get stronger. I know that,'' Thurwalker said. "My serve has to get better and I've got to learn to play more serve and volley.
"Goals for next year? To become even more consistent is one. I'd like to do better at state again. I'm shooting for a top 10 -- or better -- finish.''