There's a blend of old and new on the softball field at Owen High School this year. A core group of seniors, many of whom have been starting for the Warlassies since their freshman year, are back to try to improve on last season.
To accomplish that, the older players will need to mesh with an influx of freshmen talent, all under the leadership of a new coach. The early results, a 4-0 start to the season, are encouraging.
Six seniors can be found on the Owen roster this season, and three are starting for the varsity team for the fourth straight year.
Jaiden Tweed, Ashley Valencia and Caitlyn Ledford have been mainstays in the Owen lineup since 2015 when, as freshmen, they helped lead the team to a 9-7-1 record and state playoff appearance. In 2016 Owen posted a 15-6 mark and advanced to the third round of the playoffs and fell, 3-1, to West Lincoln.
A year ago, the trio helped lead the Warlassies to a 14-4 record and lost in the second round of the playoffs to Lake Norman Charter in the final inning.
Despite the team's success in recent years, the Warlassies have been unable to beat Western Highlands Conference foe Madison High, a program that's lost only two conference games since 2015. In that time, Owen is 0-6 against the Patriots.
If this is the season the Warlassies get past Madison, it will be under new leadership. Replacing coach Jenny Johnson, who left over the summer, is Angela Louis, who has an extensive background in the sport - and a much different approach, according to the players.
"She's great," Tweed said of the new coach. "She's tough, but I think that's kind of what we need this year. She provided a lot of structure from the start, and she really knows the game."
The new coach's technique is timely, Valencia said, because this year's roster has an influx of younger players.
"It's a challenge to move up from middle school to a varsity high school team," Valencia said. "It's up to us, the older players and coach Louis to help the younger players get to where they need to be."
Louis coached high school softball in Baton Rouge, Louisiana before beginning her job at Owen, where she also teaches physical education. She agrees that her roster, which has eight sophomores and freshmen, is young. But she said she's in a "fortunate situation" to have the seniors she does.
"We have such skilled seniors, and our young ones get to learn from them," she said. "They get to actually see what the older players know and pick up some of that knowledge from them."
The young players have proven to be quick studies, helping the Warlassies outscore the opposition 42-5 through the first four games of the season.
Kaitlyn Lambert batted .500 through the first four games. The sophomore isn't the only person with that name swinging a hot bat for the Warlassies.
Ledford's senior campaign has gotten off to a hot start. She batted .500 through the first four games of the season while driving in 11 runs. She leads Owen with five doubles.
She has also been a force in the pitcher's circle, where she struck out 10 Avery batters while giving up only two hits in seven innings of work.
"I'm excited about my senior season," Ledford said between swings on the tee at practice. "I'm looking forward to learning a lot under coach Louis. I feel like I'm already learning a lot from her."
Ledford has been one of the players that have stepped up while Tweed was nursing a leg injury. Ledford, who pitched 16 innings for the Warlassies last season, kept the Vikings off-balance in a 5-0 win on March 9.
Tweed, who leads the team with two home runs this season, has been limited due to her injury. But she anticipates being back to full strength soon.
"It's been hard having to watch the team out there for a few games in my senior season," said Tweed, who will play for Presbyterian College after graduation. "But I'm ready to get back out there with my teammates and have fun this year, which isn't always the easiest thing for me to do."
With the addition of a healthy Tweed in the lineup, the Warlassies believe they have a shot at challenging Madison, who they face for the first time on April 10, for the conference.
"Beat Madison," Valencia and Tweed said in unison when asked what goals they had going into the season.
"We like to believe that a state championship is a realistic possibility going into every season, too," Tweed added.
Louis said she's excited to see what this group can accomplish this season.
"I want to win state," she said. "Put that in there."