In front of the backdrop of a breathtaking panoramic view of mountains to the east, the Owen High School boys tennis team is volleying back and forth and working on techniques to stay competitive in the Western Highlands Conference.
It’s a scene that is becoming quite familiar to the young team and one that is likely to become even more so in the future, as practice is the only way to improve for a team with only one player returning with significant experience from last year’s team. But this year, co-coach Chuck Robinson has reinforcements and a plan to accelerate the transition to a younger roster.
Robinson welcomed Chris Barcklow into the mix this season as a co-coach of the Warhorses. Barcklow, in his first year coaching the girls Warlassies tennis team, has a long resume in the sport regionally.
“I brought on Chris, who in my opinion is one of the top skills and drills coaches in Western North Carolina,” Robinson said. “He’s teaching them the game, especially the young players, so we can have them out there competing this year.”
The young Warhorses did in fact get off to a good start to this season.
They played Erwin to a 3-3 tie through six singles matches before weather forced the match to be postponed.
Days later Owen went to Enka and lost 6-3, winning all three doubles matches to close out the contest.
The Warhorses dominated Avery in their first conference match, 9-0, days after suffering a 9-0 loss at the hands of North Buncombe, which Robinson considers to be one of the top teams in the county.
“We looked good against Avery,” Robinson said of Owen’s conference opener. “The final score showed 9-0, but almost every one of those matches was close. The number 3 seed matchup finished 10-8, and that went back and forth for quite some time.”
Typically playing in the third-seeded position for Owen is sophomore Sean Douglas, who was on the team last season and played in a limited role. After losing players like Bobby Frith and Miles Lally to graduation, Robinson encouraged the younger players on the roster to improve throughout the off season. They responded.
“We encourage them to go to Cheshire and take clinics with the pro, Bo Webb, to prepare for the season,” Robinson said. “They do clinics there on the weekends and sometimes during the week, and there are several of them doing that and trying to get better. Then you add that to our practices here once the season gets going, and a lot of them are making big improvements quickly.”
Among the players making a leap to a higher seed this year is junior James Murray, who is playing as the team’s number 1 seed after spending last year in the third slot.
“We’ve seen a lot of growth from James this year,” Robinson said. “In addition to being our top-seeded player, he’s also the vocal leader of the team. He’s the one getting them organized and warming up before matches and practice. And he has welcomed the responsibility.”
Murray has also helped the team grow in size. Robinson said he was instrumental in recruiting many of his fellow soccer players to play tennis this season, a development that adds another competitive element to team practices.
“I think you have to have that competitive team sports mentality to really improve in tennis too,” said Robinson, who also coaches the Owen boy’s basketball team. “As the season goes on, seeds one through three usually kind of set themselves, but four, five and six change often, depending on how players perform in practice. So that competitive drive is important.”
Determination to improve is necessary because of the length of the season, according to Robinson.
“Tennis is one of the shortest seasons,” he said. “From beginning to end, you’re only talking about around six weeks, so we really like to get these guys in here ready to go when the season starts.”
With players on the team continuing to push each other to improve, Robinson expects for his team to remain competitive in the conference this year, even as they look toward what could be a big future.
“We’ll be contenders this year,” Robinson said. “I think we’ll be back on top next year and the next and the next.”