At this time last year, most of the girls on the Hough tennis team were only getting to know each other.
The first Huskies team consisted of girls coming from six different high schools who had varying degrees of experience and success on the court.
"Last year, I don't think anyone really knew what to expect at first because everything was new at Hough," said junior Briana Bodner, who came from North Mecklenburg. "But we all came together quickly and blended very well. A couple weeks later we were having parties, sleepovers and other things like that with the team."
The result of that bonding was a first-year Hough team that not only finished third in the I-Meck conference, but also had a 9-3 record, including a 4-2 mark in league play with their only losses coming from Lake Norman and Mooresville.
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The Huskies also made the 4A playoffs in their inaugural season, but lost to perennial 4A power and state runner-up Myers Park in the first round.
"I was kind of blown away at how much talent we had and how well we played last year," said Hough girls' tennis coach Julie Fox, who came from Hopewell High. "Now that we all know each other and I know my players and their games, I think we can improve even more as a team. Our expectations are much higher now."
Those expectations begin with Bodner, who won the I-Meck singles' title as the Huskies' No. 1 player. Bodner, who also plays year round on the USTA Junior circuit, has worked four to five hours a day, six days a week this summer, in practice and in tournaments, to improve her game.
"I've been extremely motivated since last year to do everything to get better," Bodner said. "I want to make it to states as both a team and an individual. I feel very confident that we can have a great year."
Bodner has a lot of help from her teammates, as Hough No. 2 Morgan Marin is back as well No. 3 Courtney Wakeman. While the Huskies lost a few of their top six to other schools, Ryia Anand, Jessica Horn and Allie Schutrum are also back with several newcomers to form what should be a better team in year two.
"It's very exciting to come here to Hough and get to build a team from scratch," said Fox. "We accepted the challenge of doing that together last year as a team. Our girls have continued to work hard and not complain. That attitude has been a big key to our success."
The Huskies will likely battle with Mooresville and Lake Norman for the I-Meck title and playoff position as both the Blue Devils and Wildcats return solid young cores.
Mooresville should be the favorite going into the season after winning the I-Meck last year and return their top two players in sophomore Julia Farrell (No. 1) and junior Maggie Siebert (No. 2).
Lake Norman returns a veteran team, including seven seniors. The Wildcats will be led by junior Constance Crisp, senior Britta Huibers and Florida transfer Megan Mullen.
But Hough believes they can have an impact this season.
"We absolutely expect to contend for the conference championship and we know it won't be easy," said Fox. "But we are focused on winning the conference first and foremost and then we'll go from there."