With the recent retirement of coach Tim Raines, it was hard to say what the future would look like for Owen Warlassies basketball.
Raines has been the team's head coach since 1994. Despite the anxiety endemic in searching for a new head coach for the first time in two decades, there was more than enough reason to be optimistic about the coming season - the top six scorers on a team that finished 17-9 last year will return for the 2017-18 season.
Now it's Aaron Fernandez's job to see how far he can take the Warlassies.
At 26, Fernandez brings a youthful energy to the program. While the position may be his first head coaching job, he's no stranger to coaching the sport. He coached at Tuscola High for eight years, having started at 18. He played for the team for three years.
"During my senior year of high school it occurred to me that I might want to coach," Fernandez said. "I actually coached a travel (basketball) team full of my teammates at the time because they couldn't find a coach. I was 18 coaching a 17-and-under team."
Prior to the 2010 season Tuscola promoted Nathan Messer to replace Derek Thomas as head coach of the boys program. Fernandez, who attended Western Carolina University after graduating from Tuscola, agreed to stick around and give Messer a hand.
"I was the head coach of the ninth-grade team while I was a freshman in college," Fernandez said. "During that time I was just helping out with (junior varsity) and varsity whenever I could."
By his third year under Messer, Fernandez took over the junior varsity Mountaineers, and had an expanded role with the varsity program.
"I really did split time between both," he said. "A lot of basketball programs, the JV coach just kind of sits on the bench during varsity games, but I was going to both practices full-time."
Messer made Fernandez his lead assistant a couple of seasons ago, allowing the latter to focus all of his attention on the Mountaineers varsity program. That experience prepared him to become a head coach.
"We split duties almost 50-50," Fernandez said. "I'd have huge chunks of practice where I'd be teaching. I focus more on the defensive side of the ball, and he focused mostly on the offense. I did everything a head coach would do."
When Fernandez saw that the position at Owen was vacant, he decided it was time to put his experience to use as a head coach.
"I had applied for a few different jobs, and Owen was one of those," he said. "I've never coached girls before, but I knew this was a great opportunity for me."
The new coach wasted no time getting to know his new players. Fernandez organized his first practice at Owen on June 19.
"I've already put them in a lot of competitive situations because I want to see how they compete in in-game situations," he said. "And I can tell they like to compete."
The Warlassies planned to participate in camps at UNC Asheville and Reynolds High School in the final week of June. Fernandez hopes to gain a better understanding of each player's strengths and weaknesses as he prepares for the always competitive Western Highlands Conference.
"I know there are really good teams in this conference, and I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I've talked to the girls about their expectations, and they told me they think they can contend for the conference."