North Xtra: Jones' title goes beyond athletic accomplishment

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Keron Jones has endured many hardships in his life, from being bounced around from home to home to experiencing the loss of his best friend.

But when times have gotten tough on the Perry High School senior, the tennis court has been his outlet.

"Tennis is my escape from reality," Jones said. "I've had some harsh times and experienced some bad things, but being on the tennis court kills the stress. So any chance I get, I go out to the courts."

His time on the courts paid off last week in achieving his biggest personal triumph, as Jones won the City League title with a 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory against Carrick's Tyler Pashel.

He became the first Perry player in at least 25 years, and possibly ever, to win the City League singles title, according to Perry coach Mike Varlotta.

The championship also qualified Jones for the PIAA Class AAA singles tournament, which will take place May 23-24 in Hershey.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime achievement," Jones said. "It's been a goal of mine in high school and honestly, it was a big relief."

Up until this point, Jones had experienced much more pain than joy in his life.

For most of Jones' young life, he and his five siblings -- of whom he is the youngest -- lived with their grandmother, Patricia Jones.

It was Jones, a former tennis player, who introduced Keron to the sport.

"I lived with her for almost my whole life until I was 13, and I probably started playing tennis when I was 5," Keron said. "I was a grandma's boy; I never really hung out with my siblings. My grandma was always going to the court to play tennis and I would tag along and pick up a racket."

But when Keron was 13, Patricia was diagnosed with cancer. Weakened by the disease, she could no longer care for Keron and his siblings. So the family bounced among different family members, mostly keeping together although Keron said the siblings were separated on a few occasions. In total, Keron estimates he's moved seven or eight times.

Also around the time his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, Keron stopped playing tennis. He didn't pick it back up until two years later when he reached high school, at the urging of Patricia.

"She told me to complete whatever I start," he said. "At first I saw her down on the bed, dying, but then she started to get her strength back and wouldn't give up. And she wanted me to continue to play."

So Keron went out for the Perry team, which has been coached by Varlotta for the past two decades. Varlotta already knew Keron a little from coaching two of his older siblings and knew he had something special in Keron.

"He has quick feet, great hands and all-around athleticism," Varlotta said. "Plus he already had experience playing tennis a little bit from hitting with his grandmother."

Keron, who is also a City League wrestling champion, came within a win of taking the league's tennis title his junior season.

But right as his senior season was starting, Keron again was exposed to tragedy. His best friend, Rasheed Strader, was shot dead in the North Side.

Keron said when he first moved into the Allegheny Commons East housing complex in the North Side, it was Strader who welcomed him like family.

"We were like Batman and Robin," Keron said. "When he died, a part of me died, too. I was supposed to be with him that night, but my girlfriend called and I went to her house."

But Jones said that with the help of Varlotta, the guidance counselors at Perry and his family and friends, he pushed through another tough time in his life, and again, found his release on the courts.

"I had an epiphany one day about what [Rasheed] wanted me to do," Jones said. "He was always supporting me in wrestling and tennis and telling me I could do it. So I did what he wanted me to do -- I went out and won a gold medal."

And he did it with his biggest fan there to watch every point.

"My grandma missed her dialysis treatment so she could be there to watch," Jones said. "It meant everything to me. I shed a tear, to be honest with you. Just to have her there with me was special."

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