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'Good, Better, Best' from Sparta

Jaythan Pleasant's playmaking is the best thing WCSA Jeff Simmons saw Friday in Sparta (Painted Barn Media)

When I went to my cupboard this morning (or 1 p.m., which is morning to me), I noticed my blood pressure medication had run out. There was no way I was going to Sparta tonight without my fix, so I immediately rushed to the pharmacy and got more.

Something told me it was going to be stressful tonight and I’d need my heart staying safe, but I really didn’t think it was going to be another gut-punch on the same level as last week. I picked one-point games both weeks though and, sadly, I’m 0-for-2.

I’ve compared Warren County to Murphy’s Law several times in the past and I was reminded of why again Friday. The “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” adage seems to continue to have a stranglehold on the Pioneers, no matter how hard they try to shake the image and readjust the aura of the program. We seem to always circle back to the most heartbreaking ways to lose, so much so that I’m certain one of these Pioneers I’ve covered is going to go on to become the greatest country music writer of all time.

Who knows heartbreak and loss better than the Pioneers? George Jones (RIP) would make a killing just singing the scoring summaries of the last two Warren County losses.

The Tigers started scoring with a minute to play…

The Pioneers got knocked to the floor…

And soon another will steal a win away…

Because Sparta scored with seconds to play…

Friday’s 22-21 loss to White County won’t go down as the worst one I’ve seen while covering the Pioneers, but when you combine it with last week’s 36-35 loss to Smithville, it becomes a double dose of sadness. For the record, it’s going to take a lot to ever unseat the 2014 defeat against Stone Memorial where Warren County lined up to kick a short field goal in a tie game with :10 left, only to have it blocked and returned 80-plus yards for a TD as time expired.

When focusing on this, you have to remember that since 1980, the Pioneers had only suffered three 1-point losses over 41 years. They’ve had TWO in eight days, each one coming when their opponent scored on a two-point conversion with less than 65 seconds left to play. My heart hurts just typing those words – it may be time for another pill.

Let’s just jump into the ‘Good, Better, Best,’ because despite all the above sadness, I still have hope for Squad 54 this fall.

Good – We’ll all ask what if for weeks, months and years about so many plays from Friday (and last week), but in the grand scheme of things, these games have no bearing on the future of the Pioneers. If anything, it’s showed me that Warren County – if it can continue to grow and not get downtrodden from these losses – should be a major threat for hosting a playoff game by the end of the year.

I felt your eyebrows raise and heard the scoffs, but let’s look at Region 3-6A – Lebanon is really, really good and the odds-on favorite to win. After that, who is the second-best team?

Coffee County is 1-1, having lost to Franklin County last week before winning the 97th Coffee Pot over Tullahoma Friday (35-14).

Cookeville is also 1-1, but the Cavaliers were thumped 38-0 last week by Upperman and were tied 7-7 at halftime with Livingston Academy tonight before pulling away to win 27-7 (That same LA team lost to White County 48-0 last week).

Shelbyville and the Pioneers are both 0-2. The Eagles lost to Tullahoma (16-7) and Marshall County (36-14) and most have said their in a rebuilding phase right now. Warren County is two stops away – or four yards, however you want to put it – from being 2-0.

It’s not inconceivable that the Pioneers, with good health and a few good bounces, could be playing Coffee County for sole possession of second place in Region 3-6A on Sept. 30. Oh yeah, that’s homecoming too – so expect the Pioneers to be extra jazzed up for the Red Raiders.

Training for Region 3-6A play continues the next two weeks for the Pioneers. Wins would be nice against Ridgeway and Mt. Juliet, but ultimately I’m more interested in seeing if the team can stay healthy and get a couple players back quick from injuries (the Pioneers missed safety Creed Adams and LB Andrew Miller Friday while losing DL Collin Panter and Jr Mares during the game), develop some semblance of a short passing game (to keep defenses honest against their great running game) and find a killer instinct when it has the ball and the lead in fourth quarters. Just getting good luck with injuries alone would be enough to make them a threat. Do all three and I think we’re going to see November football at Nunley Stadium.

Better – How nice was it to get Warren County and White County back on the same field after a three-year hiatus? These programs have no reason why they shouldn’t play every year (to be fair, they only missed out last year due to COVID). It’s not something that just I feel is right. Both coaches said the same after the game.

“We were excited to play this one last year, but it just didn’t work out. These are just two programs full of the same kind of kids and athletes who all know each other and want to compete. They’ve done a great job getting on track,” said Turner. “My hat is off to coach (Mark) Frasier. It’s a dang good team. Maliki Dowell and his teammates are just some dudes.”

Sparta coach Frasier added, “There’s no doubt that this is something that needs to play every year. Both of these programs have had some down times in the recent past, but I think our program is getting better and I know Warren County’s has, especially after that great run a few years ago. Coach Turner has a great job with the program.

“I feel like it can be a competitive game and great gate. Isn’t that what high school football is supposed to be – having a good night like tonight with crowds that are awesome and into it on both sides? That’s what it’s all about. I want to be old coming to watch games like this. It makes it fun when you’re playing guys you know.”

I’d be shocked if we don’t see more Pioneer-Warrior battles in the future. Warren County still holds the edge in the all-time series 21-18, but it could continue to see-saw for decades.

Best – Speed in sports is talked about all the time. It’s been called the great equalizer, while other say simple, “speed kills.” Mario Andretti, a world-famous racer, said, “If everything seems under control, you aren’t going fast enough.”

I think Jaythan Pleasant needs to make that his new theme. It feels like every time it gets hectic in the Pioneer backfield and bodies are flying all over the place, the Pioneer speedster will pop out of the scrum and get loose. Once he’s in the open field, it’s game over.

Pleasant has the kind of game-breaking speed that the Pioneers have coveted for years, but rarely had (Outside of that CJ Taylor guy that one or two people still talk about). Back with the program and looking fast as ever, Pleasant has racked up 372 yards and four touchdowns through two weeks, including three runs of over 60 yards already. He’s always a big play waiting to happen, even if you must survive some slow burns to get there.

Consider me a hater of any slow-developing running play in the redzone, like the one that Pleasant fumbled on Friday night where he was hit in the backfield and tried to shake loose to make something out of nothing, but it’s obvious the Pioneers are dialing up the rights calls and the right time more often than not for their fastest player. The next step will be getting the play to Pleasant in space on some short swings and screens – anything that can let him crank up to top speed while avoiding some big bodies.

Pleasant continues to be a pleasant surprise in a Pioneer uniform and has developed into the team’s best playmaker this year.

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