Brighter days appear to be in the Owen Warhorses tennis team's future - it won two of its first three matches.
An experienced roster, a foreign exchange student from Italy and a returning senior who missed most of his junior season with an injury may be the key to the Warhorses finishing atop the Western Highlands Conference.
Last year the team finished the season 5-9, posting a 4-4 record in the conference. That season started with a 6-3 loss to Enka and 9-0 loss to North Buncombe.
"Last year was a little bit of a rebuilding year for us," said head coach Chuck Robinson, who is entering his seventh season as coach. "But this year we've got a good nucleus back and things should be a little different."
One difference this year is the addition of senior James Murray, who missed much of his junior season with an injury.
"When James got hurt last year everyone had to move up a seed," Robinson said. "He ended up being out for almost the entire season and we still came close to winning a lot of those matches."
Murray's fellow seniors - Gable Lammens, Micah Davis and Elias Peters - also figure to make key contributions this year. The trio typically makes up seeds four through six for the Warhorses.
"We have really good senior leadership with this group," Robinson said.
Robinson and assistant coach Dick Keefer are relying on this group of seniors to help set the tone for the future of the program.
"We instituted a no-cut policy this year," Robinson said. "In order to keep building the program we kept 20 kids on the roster. We'll travel with the top 10 players, and the rest of the players will stay back and practice with Coach (Chris) Barcklow, the girls' coach. We're really trying to build our tennis program back up."
While the new policy and expanded roster make the future brighter, the Italian foreign exchange student is another piece of the puzzle that could help the Warhorses win this year.
"Gabriele Talin has been playing in our number 1 position this season," Robinson said. "He's really good. He's going up against some tough competition, but he's really competing well."
Talin's presence at the top of the lineup for Owen has allowed fellow junior Joseph Frith and the team's core group of seniors to slide "down the ladder," according to Robinson.
"Tennis is an individual sport, but at the end of the day it's also about the team," he added. "And Gabe's ability to play up in that top spot and play some of those other number ones has helped make us a lot stronger."
Just how much better this season will be for the Warhorses remains to be seen.
"I think we're good enough this year to win conference," Robinson said. "We could possibly go a few rounds into the state playoffs this year if we stay healthy. I wouldn't be surprised if we're good enough to send some of our individual players to state (championship). Our expectations are very high this year."