No team has dominated the Western Highlands Conference on the soccer field the way Owen has the past two seasons. The Warhorses were a combined 20-0 in the WHC in 2017 and 2018, as they brought back-to-back conference titles to the Swannanoa Valley.
Yet, as head coach David Fiest and his team turn the page to 2019, maintaining that top spot won't be easy.
"We lost around 12 players from last year's team," said Fiest, who has coached the boys and girls soccer teams at Owen to undefeated conference records in each of the last two seasons. "So we have a lot of new players playing on our varsity team this season."
With what Fiest called a "huge class of freshman" coming into the program, the Warhorses fell 2-1 to Smoky Mountain in their season opener on Aug. 19. They were scoreless going into the half two days later against McDowell, before coming on strong in the second half to defeat the Titans 3-0.
Those two matches provided Fiest and assistant coach Ray Nightingale with valuable insight into their new-look roster.
"Coming into the season we knew we'd lack experience as a whole," Fiest said. "The players who have been here know how I like to do things, but putting it together on the field takes us finding rhythm and chemistry so we can develop a personality as a team."
Facilitating that process is the hard part, the coach said.
"I know the ideas and creativity are there," he said. "It's just a matter of sharpening the tools to get them to where they want to be."
The first few weeks of the season will involve a lot of "trial and error," Fiest continued.
"There are going to be some uncomfortable moments and they're going to have to embrace that," he said. "We can use those moments, take mental notes, and adjust off of them."
That approach was on display in Owen's first win of the season over a physical McDowell team.
"I had a freshman, Dominic Sanchez, who hadn't played in the first game," Fiest said. "I put him late in the first half because I wanted to move someone to a different position. He normally plays on the back line, but I put him as high up the field as possible to take some of the pressure off of him. Everything clicked for him that game, and seeing that gives us valuable information as coaches."
The Warhorses play seven out-of-conference opponents before facing off against Madison on Wednesday, Sept. 18 in their first WHC contest.
"They have expectations of themselves, so I don't have to motivate them," Fiest said. "They know we've been 20-0 in the conference the past two years and they understand they have a target on their back."
Last season the Warhorses were 4-4 heading into their first conference match and this year's young roster possesses many of the qualities that give Owen an opportunity to continue its reign at the top.
"This is a very coachable group," Fiest said. "They are hungry to learn the game and they're willing to do the things we need to do to win. The keys for us early this season will be repetition and consistency, which will allow the fundamentals to become second nature to them and let them see opportunities as they develop around them."
The coach is still working to identify leaders on his young roster.
"We have so many new faces this year so we're really paying attention to which guys step up both on and off the field," Fiest said. "I'm looking for players who aren't scared of the spotlight and allow their natural leadership characteristics to emerge."
As the season plays out, Fiest will focus on putting his players in positions to be successful on the field.
"We have players like Bebe Rojas, Jason Gun and Ayden Stephenson who are doing a great job," he said. "I anticipate that as this roster continues to learn to work together on the field that we'll find a system that works."