March 5, 2015

By Jennifer Prosser ’18

Molly O’Koniewski has moved around a lot.

Before making Notre Dame her home, O’Koniewski lived in New York, Virginia, South Carolina, Massachusetts and Florida. Amid all these changes, two things have stayed constant: tennis and family. For her, the two are intertwined.

O’Koniewski is one of three players on the women’s tennis team with a family tennis legacy. Her mother played at Boston University in the `80s, and her aunt played at North Carolina. Now, while she is a senior at Notre Dame, her brother Jack is a freshman playing tennis at Denison University in Ohio.

Molly and Jack O'Koniewski

Molly and Jack O’Koniewski

Freshman teammate Allison Miller also has a mother who played collegiate tennis at Illinois State and a brother, Ryan, a junior who plays at Presbyterian College. Junior Julie Vrabel has a sophomore brother, Chris, who plays at Cornell.

Each set of siblings may be in different places now, but they all have similar stories of childhood competition and teenage friendships. O’Koniewski was 7 years old when she started playing tennis with her family.

“My mom would have me and my brother out on the court playing for fun,” O’Koniewski says. “At the time, we were living in Florida, so it was really hot and she would only have us out there for 15 minutes max. At the end of the 15 minutes she would say, `That’s it, we’re done for the day’ and always left us wanting more.

“Playing tennis was always fun because we looked forward to it and didn’t get exhausted. As we got older, it was so nice having a brother who plays as well because we could go out whenever we wanted and have each other to hit with.”

But with age came competition, too. For the O’Koniewski siblings, everything was turned into a bet. Whether they were playing actual matches or target practice, a milkshake, money or some other prize was always on the line.

“As the older sister, I could never let my little brother win,” O’Koniewski says. “It was nice because for a while I had the upper hand — until he grew and now he’s six inches taller than me. With that came a bigger serve, a bigger forehand, a bigger everything. I kind of hate playing him now because I know my chances of winning are a lot slimmer.”

As another older sister, Vrabel experienced a similar sibling rivalry with her brother.

“My brother and I were super competitive,” Vrabel says. “When we would play each other at home, I could not stand losing to him, so I would do literally anything to win. We fought a lot because we were so close in age. We went to the same high school and same middle school. We trained together and we had the same friend group at tennis. But then we went to different colleges in the opposite directions, and now when we’re home we’re really close.”

The Miller sibling dynamic was always a little different. As the younger sister, Miller looked up to her brother as a role model. With a two and a half year age difference, they were never able to train together. Instead of being his biggest rival, Miller was her brother’s biggest fan.

Allison and Ryan Miller

Allison and Ryan Miller

“I wanted to be just like him,” Miller says. “When I was little, I was always really competitive with him, but it was always a losing battle because he was older than me and a boy. I never really had a chance, but I remember telling myself that I was going to practice so much I was going to beat him. Unfortunately, that never really happened.”

Instead of playing against each other, the Miller siblings now play together. In the summer of 2014, the two won a mixed doubles tournament in their hometown of Norcross, Georgia. In front of a small crowd comprised of mostly family, they beat adult teaching pros to take home the cup.

“I was actually really impressed,” Miller says. “I think he carried me for most of the match. He was serving really big and just acing the girl left and right. I just had to stand there and tell him good job. It was really fun. It’s good that we’ve matured to the point where we can go out and have a good time.”

Over the years, all three sets of siblings have grown to join the same team. When at home in New York, the O’Koniewski pair regularly plays competitive doubles in Central Park. This past summer, the two lived together in South Bend while she took classes and he coached at the Notre Dame tennis camp.

“Having him here was a blast,” O’Koniewski says. “We’re the only two siblings, so we’ve always grown up hanging out with each other and having one another’s back. I miss him. It was nice having him around and made me wish that we went to the same school.”

Despite the distance from Notre Dame to Vrabel’s home in Centreville, Virginia, the Vrabel siblings have also gotten closer. Her freshman year, her parents surprised her by bringing her brother to visit and see a match.

Julie and Chris Vrabel

Julie and Chris Vrabel

“That was really exciting,” Vrabel says. “He had never seen Notre Dame, so I was happy he came. I honestly think that I play better when they’re here because I know that they’re supporting me.”

Tennis is a demanding sport that is made much easier with the support of family. Vrabel’s dad would take off work for a week at a time so that he could take her to juniors tournaments. The O’Koniewski family moved from Boston to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, so that the kids could focus more on their tennis.

“I can’t thank my parents enough,” O’Koniewski says. “They’ve given up so much and dedicated so much of their time for me and my brother. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for everything they have provided me and the support they have given me.

“They’ve always been positive reinforcement, knowing that if we work hard, they’re always happy with us no matter what. They were always good about never putting pressure on me and my brother. It all came from within and wanting to succeed was a personal thing.”

Success has come for the Irish women’s tennis team. Notre Dame is 3-1 in the competitive ACC and 7-4 overall. All four losses have been to ranked teams. Regardless of different results, the tennis will continue. For O’Koniewski, Vrabel and Miller, the family tennis legacy will go on, too.