Chris Kearney (courtesy of UCI, Daily Pilot / October 18, 2010)

For Chris Kearney, break point will always hold a deeper meaning than the one linked to the context of tennis.

UC Irvine men's tennis coach Trevor Kronemann said Monday that Kearney, a junior transfer from North Carolina, has the potential to legitimately contend for an NCAA singles title.

But tennis is the least of what the 22-year-old has had to contend with since one fateful night in the fall of 2008.

Kearney, then 20, was days away from beginning his third year at UNC, for which he had earned All-American honors as a sophomore. Kearney and then-junior Taylor Fogleman who advanced to the NCAA doubles quarterfinals the previous spring, were expected to be the No. 1-ranked doubles team in the nation.

But after returning home from drinking with friends near the Chapel Hill campus on Aug. 17, 2008, Kearney made a decision that would lead to regret, remorse and, ultimately, to prison.

"I got a call from one of my neighbors, who asked me to come get her," Kearney said Monday during taping of the "Blue and Gold Report," a weekly radio show about UCI athletics. "I got in my car and I think I was in my car for 20 seconds …"

Police reports stated that Kearney's SUV veered off the road, hit a wall, then struck two female UNC students walking on the sidewalk.

Carolyn Kubitschek and Casey LeSawyer, both then-22, were seriously injured.

Kubitscheck, who like LeSawyer was thrown between 30 and 50 feet by the impact, had compound fractures in both legs, and other cuts and contusions.

LeSawyer's injuries included multiple fractures in her pelvis.

Both underwent surgeries and faced months of rehabilitation before they could walk. They had to withdraw from school but have since graduated, Kearney said.

Kearney's blood alcohol level was registered at 0.18, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08. Police said he had two fake IDs. He testified he drank about 12 beers in about an 11-hour period that preceded the accident.

Kearney pleaded guilty of two felony counts of serious injury by motor vehicle, two counts of possession of an altered or fictitious driver's license, and one count each of driving while impaired, consumption of alcohol under 21, driving after consuming under age 21, and reckless driving to endanger.

He was sentenced to 10 to 12 months in jail on Sept. 14, 2009 and taken immediately to Polk Institution in Butner, N.C. Three weeks later, he was transferred to Orange Correctional Center in Hillsborough, N.C.

He said he was not prepared for the severity of the sentence, nor life behind bars.

"It's nothing I can ever explain," Kearney said of his incarceration, after which he is serving three years probation. "You have to actually be there to understand it. It's a completely different world. I told people it was the worst place in the world, but it was also the best place in the world for me.

"The worst was, you're away from everybody and everything is lost; everything you have and take for granted. You have no cell phone, no internet, no nothing. And no family. My family was 3,000 miles away [in Irvine].

"The best thing was, you grow up. I had to grow up so quickly and realize who I was and what I wanted. It showed me that I'm going to be stronger from this, no matter what."

Kearney said Polk was a medium-maximum-security facility for inmates ages 16 to 24. "There wasn't much movement, gang bangers were running around and there were a lot of fights," Kearney said.

"[Orange Correctional Center] was a minimum-security adult facility. I was the youngest one there and I was able to go outside any time I wanted to run and play basketball. It made the time go much easier."