A quick glance at the standings in the Western Highlands Conference shows the Owen Warlassies near the top, with a 3-1 record since conference play began in mid-December.
But the biggest test of the season for the Warlassies is coming on Thursday, Jan. 14 when the Mountain Heritage Cougars come to Swannanoa Valley to put their perfect conference record on the line against a deep Owen team.
Coming into the season, head coach Tim Raines had high expectations for his young, athletic Warlassies. Through the first four games, the team alternated wins and losses followed by a pair of three-game winning streaks that resulted in six victories during the seven-game span.
The vast majority of this season’s offensive production for the Warlassies has come from a pair of underclassmen. At about 14 points per game, freshman Chesney Gardner spent much of the season among the region’s leading scorers. Sophomore Dee Graves has been a consistent threat to score in double digits.
The pair has been a force on the boards as well, with Gardner registering as one of Western North Carolina’s leaders in rebounding, with Graves not far behind.
The Warlassies carried an 8-4 record into the holiday break, when they met their toughest challenge of the season - the host team at a tournament in Cherokee.
“Cherokee was tough, but we came out and played well at first,” Raines said. “But they hit 19 three-pointers that game, and when a team shoots like that, then your chances aren’t good. There are college teams that can’t hit that many threes in a game.”
Owen recovered from the opening round loss to the Lady Braves during the three-day tournament with consecutive wins over Cosby and North Buncombe.
“The kids played hard in Cherokee,” Raines said. “I think one of the best things about that tournament was that we had some down-time. We went out there and stayed on Monday night and Tuesday night, so we ate together and hung out together. It was a good bonding time for them.”
The holiday tournament also gave the Warlassies an opportunity to face live action during one of the season’s slower periods, according to Raines.
“What you really don’t want to do is have the players sitting around through the break and getting out of shape,” Raines said. “When we got back, we decided to give them a week off because we had such a brutal opening stretch of 14 games.”
The Warlassies returned from their week off and appeared to be a little out of rhythm, suffering their first conference loss of the year last week against Madison.
“I think we lost a little bit over the holiday, and that’s my fault,” Raines said. “But you really want to make sure the girls have time to spend with their families over Christmas. We just need to build ourselves back up.”
The Warlassies will have a chance to re-establish themselves in the conference on Thursday against Mountain Heritage, which has yet to lose to a Western Highlands opponent.
“This conference is so competitive,” Raines said. “And Coach (Susie) Shelton has done such a great job over at Mountain Heritage making them believe that they belong up at the top of the conference every year.”
Raines would like to see his team’s confidence reflect his opinion that these Warlassies are as athletic as any of his teams in recent memory.
“Athlete for athlete, I believe we have are the most athletic team in the conference,” he said. “That’s my personal opinion. And it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to say that.”