Coming into the 2017-18 basketball season, the Owen Warlassies wanted to show everyone that they could play with perennial Western Highlands Conference powerhouse Mountain Heritage.
On Jan. 9, the Warlassies did just that, going blow for blow with the conference champions for three quarters. Then they ran out of gas.
You would have to go back to February 2010 to find the last time the girl's basketball program at Owen recorded a win against Mountain Heritage. But the most recent game provided a road map for how the Warlassies could pull it off.
"I thought we played with a different kind of effort than I've seen this year," first-year head coach Aaron Fernandez said of his team's performance against Mountain Heritage. "I felt that we were in a different gear and that kept us in the game most of the way."
The Warlassies fell to 12-3 with the loss to the Cougars, who came into the contest with a 10-1 record. While his players were disappointed with the loss, they learned a valuable lesson about what they are capable of accomplishing as a team, Fernandez said.
"Our home game against them last year was a 20-point loss, and they beat us in the away game by more," he said. "I've been trying to preach to the girls all year that we're approaching things from a fresh mindset. They came out ready to try to beat Mountain Heritage."
Owen took an early lead over the Cougars and was up 38-37 heading into the fourth quarter. Mountain Heritage pulled away in the final frame for a 61-49 win.
"We ran out of steam in the fourth quarter, and I need to do a better job of substituting players next time," Fernandez said. "I was trying to lean on players who had played in big games like that before. But it was a learning experience for us."
The Warlassies bounced back on Jan. 10 with a 69-58 win at home over West Henderson, improving to 13-3. They hosted WHC opponent Avery on Jan. 12 (results not available as of deadline).
Owen has seven games remaining against conference opponents, including another shot at Mountain Heritage in Burnsville on Jan. 26.
"We get other chances at them," Fernandez said. "We'll see them at least one more time, and hopefully we'll see them again in the conference tournament."
Until then, Fernandez said, his team will focus on navigating the WHC, which the coach believes to be "the premier girl's basketball conference in Western North Carolina."
"I don't like using cliches, but we literally have to focus on one game at a time," he said. "We want our seniors to savor this last part of their final season."
Even with a loss on their record, the Warlassies will build off of the foundation they laid down against Mountain Heritage.
"We finished fourth in the conference last year. This year we're trying to crack the top three and even the top two," Fernandez said. "We want to finish better than we did last year, bottom line. If we can knock off (Mountain) Heritage in the process, we have a chance to contend for the conference title."