Ashley Valencia and Jaiden Tweed have come a long way since their sophomore season and now they're ready to lead
Ashley Valencia and Jaiden Tweed were looking to try something new when the friends, who have played softball together since they were four, decided to join the Owen High School tennis team in fall 2015, their sophomore year at the school.
"When I first started, I didn't really know anything," Valencia said of her first season in the sport.
Warlassies head coach Chris Barcklow, who was entering his first season that same year, knew he was getting a pair of outstanding athletes in Valencia and Tweed. But he didn't realize that, just two years later, the pair would be the best players on a team he believes will win the Western Highlands Conference. As a doubles team, Valencia and Tweed could fare even better.
Tweed won seven individual matches her first season on the team, playing in the number 5 and 6 spots for the Warlassies. Valencia won three.
The first obstacle for Tweed and Valencia to overcome on the court was the swinging motion used to hit a ball. In tennis, it's significantly different from batting a softball (Tweed and Valencia both hit upwards of .500 last season).
"The first week I played tennis I was hitting the ball over the fence," Tweed recalled. "In softball you don't break at your wrist and roll over the ball. You hit it as hard as you can. In tennis, it's the total opposite - you want spin on the ball so you roll your wrists over the top."
Valencia began her tennis career with a two-handed backhand. Which she quickly learned wouldn't work if she wanted to compete against the top talent from other teams.
"I switched to a one-handed slice backhand, which has been pretty effective against players with two-handed backhands," she said. "Just using my left hand, my dominant hand, it was much easier to hit it with one hand. When you're playing some of these really good players, it's easier to get to the ball with one hand too."
"They've come such a long way," Barcklow said. "It's hard to even describe."
Since stepping on the court as freshmen, Tweed and Valencia have helped build a team culture that emphasizes strong team chemistry and an intense desire to improve, Barcklow said.
"With their history playing softball and other team sports together they immediately brought an increased level of competitiveness to the team," Barcklow said. "It's great because they really challenge each other to improve, and the rest of the team has really responded to that. At the same time everyone on the team really encourages and supports each other."
Owen pitted Tweed or Valencia against the opposing teams' top-seeded player in every match last season, when Owen finished the regular season 7-2 in the conference. The Warlassies fell to Hendersonville in October in a tie-breaking match that determined the conference champion. Through realignment the Hendersonville Bearcats shifted to the 2-A Mountain Six Conference, which leaves Owen primed for a run at the WHC championship this season, according to the coach.
Tweed and Valencia are joined by returning senior Avery Burleson, sophomore Summer Thoma, senior transfer Gabi Wyatt and juniors Margaret Hey and Kate Austin.
"We're aiming for the top of the conference again," Barcklow said. "Polk (High) is pretty strong, and we anticipate them being really strong competition."
The Warlassies got off to a great start this season, dispatching McDowell 8-1 in the opener before handing East Henderson High School a 9-0 loss at Owen on Aug. 22. Their first loss of the season came at the hands of Asheville Christian Academy in a match held at Warren Wilson College on Aug. 24.
But in spite of the team's loss Valencia and Tweed, who won their doubles match against the Lions 8-0, still have a chance to pull off an impressive senior year feat.
"We believe they can go undefeated as a doubles team this year," he said. "They're definitely the best doubles team in the conference."
The duo was 6-6 last season as Owen's top-seeded doubles team, which was impressive for the pair's second year in the sport, Barcklow said. The performance of the pair should be even stronger this year, he added.
"What I've seen from them so far this year is that they're thinking about the game on a higher level," he said. "They've developed all kinds of strategies on the doubles court that are super-advanced. We expect them to go to regionals and hope they can make it to state this year."
That, and a deep playoff run for the team, would be an ideal ending to the tennis careers of a pair that has "tried every sport together," according to Tweed.
"When we started we wanted to try something new together," she said. "And we've helped push each other to get more and more competitive."
As the lifelong friends begin their final high school tennis season they're both proud of how far they've come and look forward to playing the sport well beyond softball, which they will both play in college (Tweed is committed to Presbyterian College and Valencia will play for Pensacola State College).
"It's kind of sad that this is the last tennis season we'll be playing," Tweed said. "I feel like I haven't even been playing it for that long. But the good thing with tennis is I can play it even when I'm old. It's not something I'll ever have to stop playing."