An air of uncertainty surrounded the girls tennis program at Owen High School as the Warlassies began the season. The roster hardly resembled the squad that opened the 2018 season with three straight wins on its way to a 6-6 mark and a postseason appearance.
But as a younger, less experienced group of Warlassies take the court for head coach Chris Barcklow in 2019, the team has its sights set on bringing home a Western Highlands Conference title.
"That's our goal every year," said Barcklow, who enters his fifth season at the helm of the program. "We might not have the same names on our roster, but we still have the same goal."
Owen improved to 3-2 on the season with a 7-2 win at home over Smoky Mountain on Sept. 5.
"I thought we were going to come into the season looking similar to last year's team, but things change and we came in with a much younger group," Barcklow said. "But we have players like our captains, Anna Sobol and Summer Thoma, who are stepping up and leading the way."
Gone are names like Camry Bolick, who transferred in the summer, and Margaret Hey, the senior captain in 2018. This year's team is relying on Sobol, a junior year-round tennis player who suffered season ending knee injuries as a freshman and sophomore and Thoma, who posted a 10-11 mark last season.
"Summer has been through a lot with our program," Barcklow said of his only senior. "She's been with us since her freshman year and worked hard to crack the starting lineup and she continues to develop on the court."
Thoma's cerebral approach to the game complements her co-captain's vocal leadership, Barcklow said.
"Anna has played number one every match this season, and that's a huge challenge because she's always going up against the other team's best player," he said. "She's been really brave about stepping into that role. It's not easy to come back from back-to-back injuries because as much as she would like to put that aside, it's something that's on her mind."
The work Sobol has done to return to the court has been evident early in her junior season, according to her coach.
"She is stronger than she was last year," Barcklow said. "She's beating players she lost to last year and you can see that working on her game year-round has helped her come back in a big way."
Sobol and Thoma also comprise the Warlassies' number one doubles team.
"We call them the 'Smack Attack,'" Barcklow said. "That doubles team could make some noise in the postseason."
The duo is also tasked with mentoring the younger players on the roster, like sophomores Mattie Lehman, Bailey Mundy and Frances Holladay.
"Mattie is our number three seed and she's only been playing tennis for a little over a year," Barcklow said. "Her athletic ability will allow her to get better as she continues to get more experience, but we're happy with where she is right now."
Mundy and Holladay are also relatively new to the sport.
"Bailey is continuing to get better every day and Frances is an amazing athlete," Barcklow said. "I expect Frances, who is a pitcher on the Owen softball team, to make a lot of strides for us this year."
Those younger players look to Sobol and Thoma for guidance.
"Those more experienced players really help model the right work ethic, strategy and mindset for the rest of the team," Barcklow said. "Tennis is very demanding and Anna and Summer help set the foundation for how the rest of the team approaches the game."
With only three schools in the WHC fielding a girls tennis team this season, Owen was set to face one of its toughest matches of the season against Polk on Sept. 10.
"They've won the conference the last three years in a row," Barcklow said. "They lost the conference player of the year to graduation, but they have plenty of good players left. They're the conference favorite, but we're going to work as hard as we can to get by them."
The Warlassies will have to overcome Avery and Mountain Heritage to bring the conference title home.
"It will be a challenge for sure," said Barcklow, who also coaches the boys tennis program at the school. "I have never won a conference title with the girls team, so it would be nice if we could pull it off this year."
Doing so will take tremendous effort from the Warlassies, he added.
"Tennis is different from a lot of sports, in the sense that it's just you against your opponent," Barcklow said. "We have to get in the mindset of believing in ourselves and being our own cheerleaders. The fundamentals and technique come with time and experience, so if we keep working toward our goal we can surprise a lot of people."