Warlassies tennis sets sights on baseline

Fred McCormick

This season is one of transition for the girls tennis team at Owen High. The Warlassies opened the year on new home courts, with a new head coach and only one senior left from last year’s squad.

However, if first-year head coach Chris Bracklow has his way, this season will mark the dawn of a new era.

Bracklow, who became coach prior to the start of the season, brings an abundance of experience in the sport. He also has a passion for the game.

A lifelong tennis player, Bracklow and his accomplishments in the sport put him in a position to guide a relatively inexperienced Warlassies team to the next level.

“I played high school (tennis) in Charlotte, and we won two private school state championships,” he said. “I went on to play in college at UNC Greensboro. Tennis is a lifetime sport, so I’ve continued to play in various adult leagues and stay competitive. But I also have had the chance to work with the youth in the sport.”

Bracklow’s tennis background, which includes a three-year term as president of the Asheville Tennis Association, has brought him in contact with many of the high school tennis coaches in the region. His relationship with longtime Owen boys tennis coach Chuck Robinson and assistant coach Dick Keefer drew him to the Valley for the start of his own high school coaching career.

“I worked with Coach Robinson’s kid from seventh grade up,” Bracklow said.

Joining Bracklow is assistant coach Rhonda Devan, whose background in athletics includes a career in college basketball and a significant amount of time playing tennis. She is currently a member of a United States Tennis Association league.

Devan joined the coaching staff after Bracklow began looking for additional support. She is impressed with Bracklow’s approach.

“He is really knowledgeable and a very strong coach. He knows so much, technically,” Devan said. “I’ve seen a huge improvement in the girls’ skills since he began coaching them.”

One of the players that has improved under Bracklow is Devan’s daughter Madison, a sophomore who often plays as a number-one seed for the Warlassies.

The addition of two accomplished Owen athletes has helped Bracklow build a competitive culture within the program. Ashley Valencia was motivated to join after watching tennis pro Serena Williams play over the summer.

Valencia is joined by Jaiden Tweed, her teammate on the Warlassie softball team. As freshmen, both of the sophomores earned honorable mentions for All-WNC softball teams.

Valencia hopes that the intensity she plays with on the basketball court and softball diamond will help motivate her teammates. Her early play this tennis season indicates she is driven to continue improving.

“I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “My serve was not so great at first, but now I feel like I’m getting a little better at everything. I’ve actually played my way up the ladder a little bit.”

Fellow sophomore Avery Burleson played on last year’s team and has noticed a big difference in the culture this year.

“I’ve been playing more aggressive and trying to finish points, which I really wasn’t doing a lot last year,” she said. “I feel like it (the culture) makes me want to play better.”

Another player that feels the positive affects of Bracklow’s guidance is Kate Austin. Austin has been playing tennis most of her life and has already learned valuable lessons from her high school coach. The freshman is frequently the team’s second- or third-seeded player but feels that she improve her game.

“I’ve learned that I have to work harder,” she said. “Coach is teaching us skills that a lot of the pros use, and he’s teaching us how important it is to work hard in practice.”

The young core serves as the foundation for the program that Bracklow is building. The vibe of the team is positive. Players approach the work their new coach requires as an investment in their future.

As Bracklow and Devan focus on developing fundamentals, the team dominated by underclassmen has struggled to win so far. However, Bracklow continues to be impressed with the group’s raw athleticism.

“We’ve got some athletes on this team,” he said. “We can work with that.”