In 2009, it was hard to tell who had more to learn: the Cox Mill girls' tennis team or its players, including top seed Claudia Oyaneder.
The team, like the school, was brand new. Made up of freshmen, most of whom came up from Harris Road Middle, as well as sophomores and juniors who had been reassigned from Northwest Cabarrus, the Chargers had to settle into their new environment.
Their leader turned out to be, not one of the older transfers from Northwest, but Oyaneder, a freshman, whose personality may have been as slight as her build. Unimposing in both ways, she still held her own against many of the top players in the South Piedmont Conference that year.
Two years later, Oyaneder and the Chargers have reversed roles. The experienced Oyaneder, as a singles player, and the Cox Mill team could easily compete for a conference championship this year.
Having just moved to Concord with her family from Florida the previous year, Oyaneder started taking recreational tennis lessons when she was 12. Over the next several years, she became involved in U.S. Tennis Association junior tournaments, playing in an average of three per year.
By the time she reached Cox Mill High, Oyaneder was already battle-tested. She was more experienced and talented than many of her teammates and opponents.
Despite being a first-year program, the Chargers had a 7-7 conference record, good enough to finish in the middle of the conference. Late in the season, Oyaneder suffered a hip injury unrelated to tennis, which kept her out of postseason play.
"Being a freshman and playing seniors, she really came through for us," said Marlene Beltran, Cox Mill's assistant coach, who was its head coach for the team's inaugural season. "She won half her matches. As tiny as she was, I was amazed she could compete with the bigger girls."
Between her freshman and sophomore seasons, Oyaneder changed off-season coaches. The biggest change in her game was abandoning her untraditional two-handed forehand and settling into a one-handed shot.
Last season, her only singles losses came to players from Concord High. Those losses coincided with Cox Mill's only team losses in the conference, as the Chargers finished second to the Spiders and made the state dual-team playoffs.
Cox Mill lost its first-round match to Charlotte Catholic, which beat Concord in the third round and eventually went on to win the 3A state championship. The Chargers ended the season with a 13-4 overall record.
In singles play, Oyaneder won three of her four matches to qualify for regional play for the first time. There, she won her first match but bowed out in the second round.
Assessing her own skills, Oyaneder said, "I think my serve is pretty decent. I like playing from the baseline. I should probably go up to the net more."
An all-conference performer, Oyaneder was selected to the All-Cabarrus News team as a doubles player with partner Danae Rhodes. This season, Oyaneder will be paired with Imani Fountain, an upstart freshman.
Christi Bruinsma has been Cox Mill's head coach for the past two years. She said Oyaneder is the silent leader type who carries a good example on the court for her teammates. Bruinsma has also had Oyaneder in biology class, where she has performed well as an honors student.
Bruinsma and Beltran joke that Oyaneder is sometimes too laid-back and they wish she would be a little more intense on the court. They appreciate, however, the good sportsmanship she exhibits and the respect she shows toward opposing players.