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THREE OF A KIND : They All Play for Duke, but It’s Still Easy to Get the O’Reilly Triplets Mixed Up

Special to The Times

Imagine three 20-year-old Liza Minnelli look-alikes from Ridgewood, N.J., by way of Durham, N.C., in Hollywood, dreaming of success.

The O’Reilly triplets are in Los Angeles, all right, but they’re not aspiring movie stars, singers or want-to-be Vanna Whites. Christine, Patti and Terri O’Reilly, around whom the best women’s tennis team in Duke University’s history is built, are competing in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament at the Los Angeles Tennis Center at UCLA.

With all three sophomores starting in singles, and Christine and Patti as the No. 1 doubles team, the 14th-ranked Blue Devils went into the tournament with a 23-5 record and recently won their school’s first Atlantic Coast Conference women’s title with a 10-0 mark.

The triplets and their teammates also earned Duke’s first NCAA bid.

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“They’ve been essential to our performance and they’ve made a major contribution,” Duke Coach Jane Preyer said of the triplets.

“They are all the same in that they are aggressive-thinking athletes. They’re not sit-back-and-wait for something to happen. They are real attackers. I think they’ve learned to temper that with a little more consistency, but they’ve got a mind set on the court. All three are intense. They think nothing will stop them.”

Preyer added:

“Every great tennis program in the country wanted them. The first week they came, I was overwhelmed, but after two weeks, they were distinct. Their identities are very clear as you get to know them. Their voices, expressions and personalities stand out.”

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On the court, the O’Reillys are quick, tenacious and versatile. In their two seasons, the Blue Devils had a 41-15 regular-season record.

This season, the triplets accounted for almost 45% of Duke’s victories in regular-season dual matches. Patti, with a 31-10 singles record, ranks 10th among Division I players, the highest ranking earned by a Duke woman in the program’s 17-year history.

Christine, with a 19-6 singles record, and Patti are Duke’s No. 1 doubles team, and ranked 18th nationally. Terri, 13-6 in singles, combined with freshman Katrina Greenman to produce a 10-3 doubles record.

“I would not say that Patti is the most talented,” said Preyer. “If they play each other, they beat each other non-stop.

“In the past year, Patti--by opportunity, by the fact that Christine and Terri have been injured a little bit--has done better against outside competition, and it’s given her a big confidence boost. I don’t doubt if it happened to one of the others, they would have handled it the same.

“The next two years, any of them could play No. 1 (singles), or could play No. 5.”

Christine said there’s no sisterly rivalry.

“We’re equally competitive,” she said. “We want to do our best. Right now, Patti is No. 1 on the team, but when Terri was 16 she was undefeated in the East. It changes every year. I know my turn will come. There’s no quest to get ahead of Patti or Terri.”

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As teen-agers, all three were ranked No. 1 in age groups by the Eastern Tennis Assn.

A pro future? All three say maybe.

“Right now, our education is more important than tennis,” said Christine. “It just depends. It’s on my mind. I don’t know if I want to be a professional. It’s a very demanding life. . . . We’re not confused (by the idea of going pro). We’ve always had other interests.”

A triplet describing triplets?

“It’s like having two best friends who look like you,” said Patti.

What does stop them frequently is when people confuse them. Christine, Patti and Terri appear almost identical. Each is about 5 feet 6 inches and 125 pounds. Each has a little under a B-plus average in economics.

"(Confusion) happens all the time,” said Patti, voted the team’s most valuable player this season. “People say hi and they don’t know who you are.”

Said Terri: “I’m not irritated. I perfectly understand it. I’ve grown up with it. It’s just part of life. It’s normal for me. I don’t mind it. I think it’s kind of funny.

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“We’re all alike. We’re perky. We love to keep busy. Someone may be a little more reserved, a little more outgoing, but I can’t say who’s who. That wouldn’t be fair.”

The O’Reillys might impress some as coy when quizzed about their differences. They’re accustomed to facing the media. They did their first TV interview when they were 10, and since have been featured in dozens of newspapers and magazines.

“The best thing (about being a triplet) is we have so many opportunities to meet so many different kinds of people,” Christine said.

Added Terri: “I really love being a triplet. I highly recommend it.”

They know they are a constant novelty, which prompts extra curiosity.

“You know something, everyone asks me how I am different,” said Terri. “And I have not given one person an answer to say how I am different because, I think, everyone should find out for themselves.

“So I don’t give away secrets. I can’t say my sisters are like my right and left arm because if I said that, I wouldn’t be independent, would I?”

Said Christine, the team’s MVP last season: “We’re very similar. We’re all active, bubbly, vivacious individuals. But it’s always difficult to say how we are different. People, at first, think it is very hard to tell us apart. After about two weeks, they say, ‘I can’t believe I couldn’t tell you apart. You’re so unlike, but also so similar.’ ”

All three, however, enjoy recalling pranks--switching classes or dates.

On April Fool’s Day, the triplets all dressed alike, wearing T-shirts that said: “My Sister Goes to Duke.”

“A lot of people got a kick out of that,” said Terri.

Patti is the oldest by 14 minutes. Then came Terri. Christine arrived 15 minutes later.

Since arriving at Duke, the three have been testing their individuality. Recently, for instance, when her two sisters got a perm, Christine chose to keep her hair straight.

They also have chosen to live in different dorms.

“We don’t room together, but if anything our bond is probably growing stronger because we don’t see each other as much,” said Terri. “So the time we spend together, we’re more close.”

Their coach, however, sees three individuals emerging.

“They have an incredible bond, but they are not a unit,” said Preyer. “They are very diverse in terms of their friends. The team sees them as three individuals.

“I’ve been aware in their two years at Duke of them wanting to be more different, trying to do something (different) from what their sisters are doing.

“They don’t want people to mix them up, and I think that’s great.”


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