A couple of years ago, Owen High School seniors Jaiden Tweed and Ashley Valencia decided they wanted to try something new. The lifelong friends, who began playing softball together at the age of four, joined the Warlassies tennis team as sophomores and committed to learning the sport as fast as they could.
After finishing the regular season with a 10-5 record (all 15 matches were against the opposition’s number 1 seeded team), the duo represented their school in the doubles draw at the 2017 Women’s Individual Tennis State Championship on Oct. 27 and 28 in Cary, where they lost to a team from Salisbury.
The Black Mountain News sat down with Tweed and Valencia to find out more about the pair's unlikely run toward a state championship before they hit the court to practice for the tournament.
The Black Mountain News: As a doubles team, the two of you qualified as a number 3 seed for the Oct. 20 and 21 West Regional Tournament at Gardner Webb University and finished third, which earned you a spot in the upcoming state championship tournament. How does it feel to be representing your school in a state championship?
Valencia: It doesn’t even feel real to me yet. It won’t feel real until we’re actually there, especially since we’ve never had that feeling in other sports that we feel like we should have it in.
Tweed: It’s just kind of crazy to me that two girls who started (playing tennis) their sophomore year are going up against girls who have had private lessons and been playing most of their lives.
BMN: Last year, as a team, the two of you lost in the opening round of the regional tournament, but still came into this season confident that you could represent the school in the state championship. What did you take away from that loss that made you feel good about your chances coming into 2017?
Valencia: We lost to the team that eventually won the state championship in the first round.
Tweed: We had a chance to see that team and thought “We want to be that good. We can be that good.” That helped push us to really improve our game.
BMN: Any time you have a chance to compete for a state title it’s special, but is this situation made sweeter by sharing it with your lifelong friend?
Tweed: I’ve been playing sports with her since I was four years old. We’ve won tournaments together and competed together and that’s helped get us here. Even though a lot of that time has been spent together in softball, we’ve been preparing each other for a moment like this.
BMN: How has the bond that you guys formed on the softball field as pitcher (Tweed) and catcher (Valencia) helped you guys develop as a doubles team on the tennis court?
Tweed: We have such a strong bond from being teammates for so long. If I’m having a down game Ashley knows what to say to pick me up and if she’s struggling I always try to do the same. That happens in tennis as well. If I’m not hitting my forehand well then Ashley’s got me covered with her forehand. There’s a lot of trust between us.
BMN: How does having a right-handed player (Tweed) and a left-handed player (Valencia) on a doubles team allow each of you to complement one another?
Valencia: Most teams have two righties, so one player is forced to play to their backhand side. With us we’re both on our forehand side no matter where we are. Also, when it comes to serving, we never have to look in the sun, as opposed to other teams which typically has one player serving while looking into the sun. We also better reach to the outside than a lot of other teams, in my opinion.
Tweed: For both of us our strongest shot is our forehand so it’s not to be set up like that all the time.
BMN: Is there a particular moment that stands out through the three seasons you have played tennis together?
Valencia: We beat Polk in the conference championship this year. They had already beaten us four times.
Tweed: They were both excellent players. Our goal, during that match, was “beat Polk.” The last time we played them they came to our court and beat us 8-3 and we turned around and beat them in the conference tournament by the same score.
BMN: With only one more tournament left in your high school tennis careers, how happy are you that you chose to try out this sport with your friend?
Tweed: I’m really happy. I was just looking for something to keep me active and in shape. Honestly, I wish I would’ve started playing tennis when I was much younger. But at least I picked up and now it’s something I can play forever.
Valencia: It makes me feel good to know that this is something we were able to do together and got good enough to be able to play well against really good teams.