Eyeing the throne

Barrington junior Kristy Dodge wasn't upset with a fourth-place finish at the state tennis tournament last season.

She had lost in straight sets to Hinsdale Central's Nida Hamilton and Carmel's Jasmine Minor. They were the better players, and she understood that. But as she left Prospect High School, the tournament's main site, last October, Dodge promised herself she'd back again, and when she did, she would be good enough to be a state championship contender.

With that as motivation, Dodge dedicated herself to tennis more in the past offseason than she ever had. She played in more junior tournaments. She spent more time with her fitness coach. She ran more. She began lifting weights.

Now, as the end of the tennis season approaches, Dodge will soon discover where she stands against the state's best players.

"I'll let you know if it's worth the hard work after this year," Dodge said.

Barrington coach Tracy Waters knows Dodge didn't waste her time. Waters has always been impressed by Dodge, who qualified for the state tournament as a freshman and sophomore, but that appreciation has gone to a new level this season.

"She's just so good," said Waters, whose Barrington teams have finished amongst the state's top six the past six years. "I can just watch. She just sets up points. You just smile and shake your head.

"She seems to be more focused. She's very focused. She's in better shape. Her shots have been more precise. She sets up her shots, she create her opportunities and she wins points. She's really improved every year."

Dodge has noticed a change in her play. She's become more consistent. She's hitting the ball harder and deeper. She also doesn't get fatigued as often.

To each of her game's advancements, she does credit that extra time she spent preparing for the season.

"After state last season, I felt like I could do more," Dodge said. "There's still more to be accomplished. It definitely took a toll on my life in general [this offseason]. I was just trying to focus as much on tennis. I definitely put more into tennis. This year I'm more determined to go as far as I can than last year."

So far, Dodge hasn't had any trouble with her opponents. She's undefeated through 20-plus matches and has barely been challenged. She defeated Lake Forest's top two singles players, New Trier's No. 1 player and will face Glenbrook North's Hanna Yu, a close friend of hers and a likely state contender, on Saturday.

Hinsdale Central's Hanna Mar and Nida Hamilton are the state singles title favorites. Mar took second two years ago. Hamilton finished second last season. Dodge hasn't played either this season. She was right there with Hamilton in a match this summer and lost in three sets.

"I feel like everybody has their on and off days," Dodge said. "I think anybody can beat anyone on any given day. Last year I think there was a gap between me and Nida. I feel like I can be closer this year. Hanna Mar and Nida Hamilton and Hanna Yu all will be really tough. They want it just as bad I do. At the end of the day, it's all about who has more heart and wants it more."

Colleges have also expressed their interest in Dodge's services. As of Sept. 1, Dodge has heard from a wide variety of schools. For now, she keeps the pile of letters next to her bed and is open to any college. She did mention Princeton and Yale as possible dream destinations. She has also made an unofficial visit to Illinois.

With Dodge being such a high-profile player, everyone wants to beat her -- even her classmates. She is challenged by her classmates, boys and girls, to play one-on-one in their physical education class.

"The kids in the PE class say, 'Bring on Dodge, we can beat her,'" Waters said. "I say, 'You can't. You're not going to beat her.'"

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at preps@espnchicago.com.