I couldn’t bring myself to do it Thursday. When I was getting my game preview together, I started to do my prediction – something I incorporated at the end of each pregame story last year when I started the Warren County Sports Authority.
It just didn’t feel right, after waiting three extra weeks, to go against the Pioneers in what became their season opener. As much as they had to go through just to get on the field, I didn’t want to pile on by saying, “Hey, welcome back. Here’s a loss.”
Matt Turner wasn’t wrong when he said on our postgame Facebook Live interview that there were some fans and “speculators,” who probably weren’t confident Friday night. He was looking right at me when he said it and I raised my hand in acknowledgement, confirming his words.
It wasn’t anything about Warren County’s talent that worried me, it was the lack of game experience for a whole new team against one the state’s best 5A schools. I watched a lot of game film against Mt. Juliet leading up to the game and some of the talk around their wins reminded me of a ‘Varsity Blues,’ scene – the one where a dad comes up to another warning about the next opponent by saying, “they’ve been killing people – Hell, they’ve been hurting people!”
I just couldn’t get over the fact Mt. Juliet was rolling in with boat loads of confidence and a roster stacked with playmakers to play a Pioneer team that was a complete mystery.
Well, after a much-needed night back at Nunley Stadium, I know so much more about this great group of kids. Here’s my ‘Good, Better, Best’ breakdown of Friday’s game, with some help from the best character in ‘Varsity Blues.’
Good – “My cat’s OK and I can play. I took your advice; they scanned my cat and I can play!”
Every Pioneer who took the field Friday night had the same excitement as Billy Bob when he found out his head was OK after a CT Scan and was cleared for action. The only difference was the Pioneers were trying to escape COVID protocols instead of concussion protocols.
None were probably happier to be on the field than Jaythan Pleasant, who had also missed the final two preseason scrimmages while awaiting clearance to play. He was the team’s breakout offensive star, finishing with 99 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
He wasn’t the only one letting out all their emotion for being back on the field though. Throughout the night, you could see the immense joy among Warren County players as the group fought to the end to protect home field. I particularly enjoyed seeing the seniors soaking in the memories.
Something about Eli Cantrell’s steely gaze before the game will stick with me. It was sheer determination. Celebrations after big plays from Ethan Bernhardt and Hunter Pezzimenti will too. Those kids have plugged away for years and were finally getting a chance to show what they could do and how much they wanted to keep the Pioneers relevant.
I don’t want it to be lost in Friday’s loss that these kids were getting to be gridiron giants again – something which wasn’t close to guaranteed back on Aug. 20 when the Pioneers pulled the plug on the first of three games.
Better – “I sure do love that dog.”
OK, so maybe Billy Bob was talking about his pet pig, Bacon, in the movie, but let me work here. Coach Matt Turner has been saying since the start of preseason he wanted to see some 'Dawgs' emerge on the field – those players who were going to get into the nitty gritty and fight and claw their way to victory.
You can earn that lofty status on the practice field sometimes (coach Turner is often found of saying, “That guy is a DUDE!” too), but most of the time, you have to be in the middle of the fight on Friday to truly know. Friday night showed the Pioneers have some bark and bite in them.
Braylon Grayson and Dayton Jernigan were known commodities – their status as Alpha Dogs on the Pioneers was cemented back in the spring. They did nothing to lose it: Grayson had 181 total yards and a TD while Jernigan finished with a forced fumble and some vicious pancake blocks.
They’re not alone though. Pleasant quickly ascended to that level. I’d say Nate Elrod, who stood tall and took some huge hits while delivering passes, is on there too.
Let’s not forget about those big men in the trenches! Bernhardt, Ojani Hernandez, Chandler McCormick and Levi Melton were all making their first starts on the offensive line and helped the Pioneers rush for 236 yards.
I could go on and on.
If you’ve gotten to any game early, you’ve heard assistant coach and the state’s No. 1 hype man Preston Smith gather the Pioneers and scream, “Where my Dawgs at?” only to be answered with loud “WOOFs!” from the team.
The Pioneer coaching staff can just look down the line and pick a number Friday night – they found plenty of Dawgs ready for battle.
Best – “I give it a 10. A TEN!”
Billy Bob’s famous rating is the same grade I’m giving the Pioneers on opening night, albeit on a slight curve. Warren County is going to play better this fall than it did Friday – probably as soon as next week against Cookeville – so there is room to improve on a 10-out-of-10 performance, but I’m bumping the score up for degree of difficulty.
I can’t stress this enough: Being in the game deep into the second half against the No. 2 team in 5A after four practices is nuts. Nobody would’ve buried this team for being rusty after a long layoff or unable to keep up with the breakneck pace the Golden Bears played with Friday, but the Pioneers were ready to go.
Before the season, I thought this team would struggle early and get better as the season progressed. I thought 4-5 wins and a chance at a playoff appearance was the ceiling. Granted now that the Pioneers have only eight games in the regular season to pick up wins, I’m not going to adjust my win total, but I will say I’m changing that chance of a playoff appearance to an expectation of being active in November.
Stay healthy Pioneers! This is going to be fun.