By Tommy Keeler Jr. - firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Carol Ashley looked at the banners for district and regional accomplishments hanging in the Warren County gym and noticed something was missing.
"Girls tennis isn't on there," said Ashley, a freshman on the Wildcats' girls tennis team. "And to think that we could probably have something up there this year is just awesome."
Ashley has good reason to believe a banner may soon be up there. The Wildcats have started off the season 9-1 and are in the top three in the Evergreen District.
Just two years ago, the program was in bad shape. After neighboring Skyline was built, many of Warren County's top players went there, leaving the Wildcats with a young and inexperienced squad.
The Wildcats won only two matches in 2008 and were led mostly by a group of sophomores.
"We all pulled together," Caroline Oxley said. "It was a tough year and we didn't have very many wins, but overall we tripled our wins from  to ."
Last season, the team showed improvement, winning six matches and finishing sixth in the Northwestern District. However, the team still wanted more.
This past offseason, things finally began to click for the squad as they prepared for their first season in the new Evergreen District. They took group lessons together at times. They also worked on conditioning throughout the offseason, had open courts and worked on footwork.
All the work has paid off this season.
"This is our product," Oxley said of the 9-1 start. "Three years of hard work has paid off."
Warren County is led by four seniors -- Oxley, Katherine Young, Emily Sullivan and Sarah Kahler. They play at the top four positions for the team, while Ashley and sophomore Brandee Kitzmiller have given the team even more depth at No. 5 and 6 singles.
"We didn't have the greatest lower seeds last year, but they've stepped it up this year," Sullivan said. "Carol just kind of jumped up into the ranks and is doing really well. And then Brandee is doing really good, too."
They are all very close in skill level, which has given Warren County a big edge this year.
The Wildcats have dominated most of their opponents, winning each match by either a 7-2 or 8-1 score. Their only loss came last week to district rival Fauquier, 6-3.
They have turned things around dramatically in one season, but Warren County coach Jeanie Tallent said it's solely because of the team having been together for so long.
"It's taken three full years of being together," Tallent said. "I've had 11 of these girls for the last three years. They're gelling well. There's no one superstar. It's a total team mentality. They know that it takes a total team to do it."
The program is so solid now that Warren County even has a junior varsity team for the first time.
One key to the Wildcats' success has been the way the team has bonded.
"We're very supportive of one another," Kahler said. "We've got each other's backs. We have each other to stay positive for each other. When we win, we get to celebrate as a team, and when we lose we get to learn from it as a team."
One of the team's biggest wins so far came against Skyline. The Wildcats won, 8-1, and for many of the players it was a pleasure just seeing some familiar faces.
It was the first time the Wildcats had beaten the Hawks, and it's become a healthy rivalry between the schools.
"It's always fun playing them because they're always one of our biggest competitors," Sullivan said. "We grow even if we don't do so well against them."
Warren County plays at Brentsville today in another key district match. Brentsville finished second in the Northwestern District last year and went to regionals.
A win by Warren County would put the Wildcats in the running for the district title. Warren County's only regional girls tennis berth in school history came in 2003.
For the seniors on the team, they just want to do as well as they can and turn a rocky start to their careers into a happy ending.
"Going out with a bang our senior year, that would be a good way to go out," Sullivan said.