From the moment she could walk, Jennifer Cleary was in the middle of the athletic action.
At the ripe old age of one, the Tower Hill School golf standout was “taken to soccer camp” in her family’s backyard by her brothers Matthew and Ryan, mother Susan remembers.
It didn’t take long before Cleary mastered soccer then moved on to smacking golf balls, at the age of four, developing a powerful, pristine swing that landed her on an elite national All Star team and caught the eye of coaches at the University of Virginia, where the sophomore has already committed to play after high school graduation.
Mother Susan Cleary recalls her daughter was a precocious little athlete, but she also was focused on improving, no matter the sport. That focus has translated today into making Cleary one of the best junior golfers in the country, but also an outstanding three-season athlete competing in field hockey in the fall and squash in the winter.
“She was very coachable, and she really listened,” said Cleary. “She did whatever they asked her to do. She would watch other kids and try to emulate them.”
Jennifer added that growing up in a family of boys meant there was always competition. “My brothers inspired me to play because I constantly wanted to beat them. They pushed me to be the best I could be.”
Cleary has been a key member of the Tower Hill national championship squash team, playing in the number two position on a team on which she is the only girl. She also will be a co-captain of the school’s field hockey squad next year.
“She’s a coach’s dream and a great athlete,” said Tower Hill Varsity Field Hockey Coach Robin Harvey. Harvey says it has been a pleasure to coach Cleary for two seasons. “Pretty much everything about Jennifer stands out. She’s physically strong and fit; she plays hard, and at practice she works extremely hard.”
Harvey remembers her first season with Cleary, instantly recognizing her as a standout. “I remember we were down state at a play day against either Delmar or Cape Henlopen – two of the so-called best teams at that time – and as a freshman, she just never let up. The body contact didn’t faze her a bit. She was so solid and tough. It was wonderful to see.”
Harvey said the school is fortunate Cleary remains devoted to three seasons of sports, given the demands required outside of school for golf. She added that Cleary’s maturity and leadership ability make her a good role model for the younger players and a great pick to co-captain next year’s team. “She’s conscientious, she’s polite, and she communicates well.”
Cleary, who seems to enjoy just about any sport she tries, has loved team sports at Tower Hill. In fact, many of her friendships have been developed on the field, the court or the links. “Being part of the squash and field hockey teams are important in growing my character as an athlete and teaching me how to compete,” said Cleary.
This year was an important year for Cleary and her squash teammates, who took home their first national championship. This was only the third year for the squash program at Tower Hill, and winning the National High School Squash Championship for their division was exciting for the young team. “This year really showed all the hard work we have put in. Three years ago we started as athletes and grew into squash players,” said Cleary.
Turns out soccer was Cleary’s first love, but her special talent with a golf club was soon apparent, and she started formal lessons at age 8 with local pro and former Salesianum state champion Eric MacCluen.
By the age of 13, Cleary had found what interested her most and made the decision to focus her attention on golf. Dropping the travel soccer team she loved proved to be a good decision.
Her performance in 2014 at the Philadelphia Junior PGA Tour undoubtedly helped cement her passion per the game. Only 11-years-old at the time, Cleary won the 12 and under low scoring average – boys and girls combined. The following year she qualified for the USGA Girls junior championship in Tulsa, OK. At age13, she was one of the youngest girls to qualify and compete among a field of 128 participants. Said mom Susan, “She had no idea what she had gotten herself into!”
In 2015, Cleary, Phoebe Brinker, currently a sophomore at Archmere, and Esther Park, a junior at Charter School of Wilmington, represented Delaware in the USGA Women’s State Team tournament in St. Louis. The girls helped pace their team to 25thplace – the best ever showing for Delaware.
Two years later, the trio from Delaware competed again and finished in second place thanks to a blazing round of 5 under by Cleary, which tied the low-scoring record for tournament. This incredible achievement is something each of the girls says they will never forget.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the team aspect and playing for our state. It was great to put Delaware on the golf map,” said Cleary. “Usually Florida and Texas are known for golf. I think we shocked everyone!”
In Delaware high school golf competition, boys and girls play on the same teams, and Cleary has fueled Tower Hill’s success as a key leader since 8th grade (when she joined her brother Matthew, then a senior). That year, fellow local female phenom Phoebe Brinker won the state high school tournament as an eighth grader.
The two links stars were recently named to the American Junior Golf Association All-Star Team in 2017, an honor bestowed on only ten young women across the country. Pretty amazing showing by two young athletes from Delaware.
Cleary continues to work on her game with John Dunigan at White Manor Club in Malvern, who is close with the Virginia golf coach. After visiting the school and meeting with the staff she decided that top 25 program was the best fit for her promising college career.
“I’m very excited about going to UVA,” said Cleary. “My dad went there, and it has always been my dream school. I chose UVA because I think the coaches will push my game to new heights. While touring the school it was easy to picture myself there where I will be pushed academically as well as athletically.”