On Aug. 16, two days before its first match of the season, the Owen High School girls tennis team was playing a series of challenge matches. Watching closely was second-year head coach Chris Barcklow.
The smooth swings and hard-charging footsteps indicated to Barcklow that this season would be better than last season, when the Warlassies finished 6-8 overall and 4-4 in the Western Highlands Conference.
Each week during the season, the Warlassies will play challenge matches to determine which six players will compete against that week's opponents. Nine players will be competing for the six spots.
"I have no idea who's going to be in the starting lineup," Barcklow said, watching his players prepare for their opener against Reynolds. "I have nine players that are all close in skill level. And that's a good thing."
The Owen team will be deep this year, said Barcklow, who lost only one senior from last year's squad.
"For those nine players it's kind of coin flip, as far as their games are concerned," he said. "That's not the best thing for us at the number one spot in the starting lineup, but that's a really good thing down in the middle."
Players like junior Madison Devan, who spent much of last season as the Warlassies' top seed, are eager to compete after honing their skills over the summer.
"I participated in clinics at Cheshire (Racquet Club) with Bo Webb," Devan said. "That helped me improve my technique. And I played against friends and family too."
Barcklow said he expects to see Devan competing for the top spot weekly. Her experience against opponents' top players last season gives her an edge. Devan thinks that's true, too.
"I definitely got a feel for playing against people that were above my level," she said. "But I learned how to adjust against different styles of play. That will definitely help me this year."
Jaiden Tweed, who saw significant time in singles and doubles action last year, makes the team more competitive, according to the coach.
"You know Jaiden is going to come in and help raise the level of intensity," Barcklow said. "She and Ashley (Valencia) know what it takes to win. That helps elevate the players around them."
Kate Austin was another player who played a lot last season. She made significant improvements over the summer, Barcklow said.
"She practiced really hard," he said. "And she's another one that you'll probably see competing for the number one spot, because when you practice that hard, the results usually take care of themselves."
An injection of young talent will help elevate play as well, according to Barcklow. Freshman Camryn Bolick is a player who could win matches for the Warlassies, the coach said.
"She's been impressive so far," he said. "I think once she gets out there and competes, she will develop more confidence and that will help her game take off."
The Warlassies will be tested early this season, with matches against Reynolds, Carolina Day and Enka. Their challenging out-of-conference schedule should help them get ready for Sept. 13, when they start playing conference foes.
"The two teams that finished ahead of us in the conference last year lost a lot of players," Barcklow said. "I feel good about our chances to win the conference this year.
"They're aiming high," Barcklow said of his players. "We finished third last year, and just barely out of second place. So I don't see any reason why we can't aim for that top spot."