The sun lit up the mountains behind the Owen High School tennis courts March 29 as the Warhorses improved to 6-0 with an 8-1 victory over Western Highlands Conference foe Avery High.
The pleasant weather was almost a perfect metaphor for the outlook of the Warhorse tennis program, which has had a lot of bright days over the past two seasons.
Last year's 13-3 tennis team was the school's only conference champion. The Warhorses were a perfect 8-0 in the conference, led by a talented senior core and head coaches Chuck Robinson and Dick Keefer.
The 2017 team lost seven players to graduation. Several players eager to build on the team's success picked up where last year's Warhorses left off, according to Robinson, returning this season with Keefer. The two coaches have been working to build the program for the past seven years.
"Wyatt Lehman played a good bit of doubles last year, and so did Hunter Haynes," Robinson said during his team's match against the Avery Vikings. "They've really stepped their games up this season; they're both playing in the top four in singles this year."
Haynes and Lehman aren't the only juniors on this year's roster playing a bigger role for the undefeated Warhorses, according to Robinson. Lorenz Hoover was 3-0 playing in the number two spot and 2-1 in the number three spot through the Warhorses' first six matches this season. He's also 3-0 as when paired with senior Joseph Frith as Owen's top-seeded doubles team.
"Lorenz didn't even see the court much at all last season in a live match, and it was the first time he'd picked up a racket," Robinson said. "And you can really see, by his performance on the court, all of the work he put in over the off season."
Frith, 7-3 overall in single and double action so far, is one of two seniors for Robinson and Keefer. His record as the number one seed for the Warhorses is spotless (3-0).
"He played quite a bit at number two for us last year," Robinson said. "He's the leader of this team. The rest of the boys look up to him, and he shows tremendous leadership."
Like the team from a season ago, this year's Warhorses are a tight-knit group, according the coach.
"Joe (Frith) makes sure of that," Robinson said. "We have spring break coming up, and he'll text his teammates to meet up at the courts and get some work in together."
That camaraderie, which Robinson and Keefer have nurtured in their program over the years, has helped the Warhorses become a perennial contender on the court.
"They all see that if they keep putting in the work it tends to pay off," Robinson said. "And they've gotten to the point where they enjoy doing the work together."
Robinson stepped down as Owen's boys basketball coach after the 2016-17 season to coach the sport at North Buncombe High School, his alma mater. But he never considered leaving the Warhorse tennis program.
"I consider this community to be a tennis community. We get a lot of support from the Cheshire Racquet Club and others in the community," Robinson said. "I have a great group of guys here, and they take academics as seriously as they take their tennis."
When Robinson decided to coach basketball at North Buncombe, he asked Owen's athletic director Anthony Lee if he could continue to coach tennis with Keefer.
"We get such great support here at Owen, and I wanted to come back and see if we could do it again," Robinson said of repeating last year's success on the court.
The Warhorses have continued to play winning tennis this season. Not only have they started out with an undefeated record, but they have also won 47 of 54 matches.
"It is an exciting time for the program," Robinson said. "Coach Keefer and I work really well together, and we've been fortunate to have the players we've had."
Like every season, the Warhorses have their eyes on winning the conference, Robinson said.
"We also want to send as many individual players to regionals after the regular season is over," he said. "And we want to make the playoffs and make as deep of a run as we can.