DARIEN — Homewood-Flossmoor, Lincoln-Way East, Lincoln-Way West, Oswego East, Plainfield North and Shepard high schools all sit more than 100 miles away from the University of Illinois, closer to rival Northwestern by driving distance.
So why did last Thursday’s Homewood-Flossmoor girls’ badminton sectional include Uni High, in addition to each of the aforementioned Chicago suburban high schools?
Andrea Li is the reason.
And the Uni High freshman was no one-and-done entrant in IHSA postseason, storming all the way to the championship match of Wednesday’s state singles tournament at Hinsdale South High School before falling to Naperville North’s Bhaavya Manikonda 21-14, 20-22, 21-10.
“I feel really happy with my performance,” Li said. “I had hard games pretty much the whole way through. ... Bhaavya is a great competitor. Big congratulations to her.”
Li won a sectional title to earn her spot in the state event.
She began her state stay by knocking off Wheaton North’s Amanda Hagen 21-4, 21-2. Then Li defeated Thornton Fractional North’s Saniah Johnson 21-2, 21-7 before holding off Naperville North’s Shannon Xu 21-18, 21-14.
The quarterfinal round delivered Li her stiffest test in IHSA play to that point, but Li persevered with a 21-14, 23-25, 21-14 success over Waubonsie Valley’s Sonali Manoharan. Li then topped Fremd’s Rachel Ye 21-14, 21-11 in the semifinals.
That advanced Li to face Manikonda, whom Li said prior to the state tournament she hoped to be on the opposite side of the bracket from. Manikonda is the 2019 singles state titlist and now a three-time championship match qualifier.
But despite the loss on Wednesday night, Li achieved another noteworthy event by just reaching the final. She became the first girls’ badminton player from a Champaign County high school since the state tournament started in 1977 to play for a state championship.
To even reach Wednesday’s state tournament was impressive enough in its own right since Li was the only local player involved in the IHSA playoffs whatsoever. To come away with a state runner-up finish only adds to the potential Li could fulfill with the Illineks during the next three years.
“There are a ton of good players,” Li said. “I know a lot of the people really well because we all play for the same club, usually, outside of the high school season. So we’re all friends.”
Li and her family are transplants from San Diego, moving to Mahomet in the summer of 2019. Li got into badminton courtesy father Wei and brother Eric.
“In San Diego, there were more places to play locally,” said Andrea Li, who’s been playing for about six years. “I really liked doing it, so I’ve been training more.”
Li participated in her first tournament in 2016. The result was nothing like what she experienced during the past week.
“I lost first round,” Li said, “... and it was not close at all.”
Li’s best non-IHSA tournament finish is a sixth-place showing in a junior nationals mixed doubles event in 2019, but she acknowledges enjoying singles play a bit more.
“For strategy in singles, generally it’s all about running and the rallies,” Li said. “You want to move your opponent around as opposed to you being the one running. You try to control them.”
This requires Li also to run and perform weight training in order to gain an edge over some of her opponents.
Li works out at the Egret Badminton Club, which has locations in Naperville and Schaumburg. So Li is accustomed to traveling in order to play, as she did for the IHSA postseason.
But Li brought badminton to Uni High during her sub-freshman year. The Illineks’ curriculum contains a week of student-led classes, and Li opted to teach badminton to some of her Uni High cohorts.
“It’s really cool to have the chance to spread the idea of badminton, because a lot of people don’t know what it is,” Li said. “It was a little bit scary because I was a subbie, but my class had all seniors and juniors.”
Illineks athletic director Tim Bicknell sponsored that class and serves as Li’s de facto coach to permit her entry into IHSA events. He said Li’s lessons didn’t equate to success for Li’s classmates when they faced her on the court.
“At the end, all of our girls and boys played against her,” Bicknell said, “and nobody could really get a point.”
Li found out about the IHSA postseason from fellow Egret members — Manikonda among them — and reached out to Bicknell about getting her signed up.
“I kind of told the other coaches about her, and she got the one seed overall (in the sectional),” Bicknell said. “She has a record of 0-0 going in, and then she beats everybody.
“I’m just sitting there ... watching other peoples’ jaws drop behind their masks. I didn’t realize she was a top player in the Midwest, if not the country, for her age group.”
Li is confident in her game but carried modest expectations into the sectional and state tournament. Needless to say, she surpassed them.
“I kind of expected to hopefully do well,” Li said. “But I haven’t played IHSA before, so I really didn’t know what to expect the level to be like.”
Now Li is well aware of what to anticipate during her next three IHSA campaigns. And opponents should be well aware of what they’re getting into when they step on a court with Li.
“I’m super excited,” Li said. “There’s always room to improve, and I’m excited to get back to training and working.”