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Heartbreak follows Pioneers to Sparta

Jaythan Pleasant eases his way into the endzone on a second-half score in Friday's heartbreaking 22-21 loss (Painted Barn Media)

Hearts that had barely started the mend from last week were ripped out again on the Warren County sideline Friday night. The Pioneers, due to another late score by their opponent, have now suffered one-point losses in back-to-back games for the first time in 54 years of Warren County High School football.

White County delivered another dose of heartache to this year’s Pioneers Friday, with QB Tripp Pinion scoring on a 2-point conversion with 26.5 seconds to play to give the Warriors a 22-21 victory. It was eerie similar to last week, when DeKalb County topped the Pioneers 36-35 on a 2-point conversation with just 1:04 left.

Another gut-wrenching loss obviously took its toll on the Pioneers, including coach Matt Turner. He was at a loss for words after the game as his team couldn’t come up with a short-yardage stop to seal a victory.

“We gotta finish – we just have to finish.,” repeated Turner on the WCSA Facebook Live video, sponsored by Justin Tanner at Capital Real Estate and Property Management. “They’re a very good football team and I just have to do a better job to get the team to finish. It’s hard for a program that has been down as long as we’ve been down to understand how to win and how to finish.

“That’s where we’re at – they’re learning how to win, but I still don’t know if we’re expecting to win. It’s about finishing those fourth quarters, keeping the foot on the throat and going for the jugular. That’s a learned habit – winning is a habit and so is losing. We’re trying to overcome that.”

White County’s Mr. Football candidate Malaki Dowell turned out to be exactly what he was billed to be, finishing with 253 yards rushing and three TDs for the Warriors. Dowell was able to carry it in from five yards out in the final minute, setting up the thrilling finish.

The only surprise at the end was that Dowell wasn’t the one to touch the ball. The Warriors and Pioneers each spent timeouts to get set for the 2-point conversion, but no amount of preparation would’ve had Warren County ready to see Dowell play the decoy on a sweep and Pinion rifle through the middle for the game-deciding score.

“It’s a great call now that we went in, but people would’ve been analyzing it forever had we not made it,” said white County coach Mark Frasier about going for the win on the conversion. “I felt like I’d rather take our chances on three yards than to try to go through the mess of making the kick and (potentially going to OT). Everybody was tried and we were having a hard time stopping them as well, so I wanted to keep it in our hands and it worked out.”

It was the capping play of a wild drive in the last minutes after the Pioneers retook the lead on Jaythan Pleasant’s 62-yard TD run with 4:00 left. Pleasant had a career night spoiled in the loss as the dynamic junior playmaker rushed for a career-high 162 yards and three touchdowns, continuing his ascension as one of top players on the Pioneers.

White County took over at its own 32 down a touchdown and immediately had a near catastrophe. A snap sailed over the heads of everybody in the backfield, ultimately getting covered for a 14-yard loss. Fortunately for the home team, one of the best running backs in the state was around to make up ground.

Dowell got it all back - and more - on one play, running for 15 yards and getting 15 more tacked on when the Pioneers were flagged for a horse-collar tackle. It flipped momentum immediately, taking White County from second-and-long near its own goal line to first-and-10 at midfield.

The drive began to stall at the Pioneer 31, where Dayton Jernigan had a huge stop on second down where he slammed Dowell at the line and then proceeded to bat down a pass on third-and-5. A fourth-down fluke saved Sparta though.

White County lined up and had some confusion, failing to get set as the play clock dwindled. To Pinion’s surprise, the ball shot back to him during his cadence and everybody on the field seemed to stop for a second. Pinion was left in scramble mode in the backfield, starting left before heading back right and chucking up a prayer down the sidelines. It was answered as Thomas Paul climbed the ladder and made a highlight-reel catch to give Sparta new life at the Pioneer 5. From there, the Warriors iced the game.

“That’s the play that stuck out in my mind. I feel like Sparta didn’t know what was going on and our kids played to their level and really didn’t know what was going on either. Next thing you know they convert it on a busted play,” said Turner.

Frasier confirmed Turner’s suspicions about the play, saying after the game that the Warriors were “just trying to draw them offsides,” before Pinion made something out of nothing.

Nate Elrod slings a pass during another Friday night thriller (Painted Barn Media)

It was a game where both teams had their miscues, but also showed off some impressive plays as well.

Dowell started the scoring in the first quarter, capping Sparta’s first drive with a five-yard TD run. He set the tone from the start that he would be the workhorse, gaining 45 yards on the way to putting Sparta up 7-0. He’d ultimately finish with 34 touches in the game (33 carries, 1 catch).

Warren County looked like it was going to answer back as it pushed all the way to the Sparta 9, mostly courtesy to Braylon Grayson breaking out on a 57-yard run. In the red zone though, the Pioneers got blown up in the backfield on a Pleasant carry and, while trying to make the best of the play, the junior got stripped and the Warriors recovered.

Dowell thought he had made it 14-0 two plays later when he rumbled for an 83-yard TD, leaving the Pioneers in the rear-view mirror past midfield, but the play was called back on a penalty. It was during a string where both coaches felt their teams left points on the board.

The Pioneers knotted the game up at 7-7 when Pleasant broke free on a 63-yard touchdown in the second quarter. It was similar to the play he was stripped on earlier, but this time he was able to get into the open field on a first-and-24 and never looked back. The teams remained tied at 7-7 going into halftime.

Warren County took its first lead in the third quarter. The Pioneers stopped Sparta on its opening drive, then got the added benefit of dropping the Warriors back even more on fourth down near midfield after the home team tried to fake a punt. The Pioneers took over at the Sparta 38 and went on the march.

Turner decided to roll the dice when the drive hit a snag at the White County 18. The Pioneers were facing fourth-and-2 and the coach decided to hold the kick team and send out its offense. He immediately was rewarded as Pleasant came off the edge on an end-around and flew to the endzone for the score.

The Pioneer offense hit the skids in the fourth quarter, however. Twice, Warren County got the ball in the final 12 minutes with a 14-7 lead and a chance to ice the game with a long drive and score. Both times, the Pioneer went three-and-out, cracking the door open for the Warriors.

Dayton Jernigan proudly displays a fourth-quarter fumble recovery (Painted Barn Media)

Dowell made it happen down the stretch for White County, scoring on a 38-yard TD as he seemingly got faster and stronger down the stretch. It was part of a wild 16 seconds where Warren County answered with Pleasant’s third TD on its first play after the kickoff, but ultimately the Warriors got the last score.

Wes Sherrell tried to rescue the Pioneers in the final 20 seconds, making an amazing catch down the sideline on a deep ball that put Warren County at the Sparta 32. After the Pioneers took their final timeout, they tried to throw a short pass to gain more yards for a field goal, but it was dropped.

In the hesitation of deciding to either give senior kicker Beckham Scott a chance at a game-winning field goal or just trying a Hail Mary, Warren County burned itself. Scott tried to rush on late, but the Pioneers were hit with a back-breaking delay penalty in the final 5 seconds.

Left with only the Hail Mary as an option, Elrod faced immediate pressure and his final throw was batted down 20 yards short of the endzone.

Since 1969, when Warren County merged into one high school, the Pioneers have only lost 11 games by one point. There had been only three losses by a point for the squad since 1980 until the last eight days, when Warren County took bad beats in back-to-back weeks.

The Pioneers will try to get back on track next week when the group travels to Memphis to play Ridgeway. Both teams will enter 0-2 as the Roadrunners have lost to Houston (48-7) and Whitehaven (46-0) to open the season. Coach Turner plans to get his team to the Bluff City on Thursday and work out at a local field Friday afternoon before kickoff next week at 7 p.m.

Click HERE for Painted Barn Media photos

Junior Jaythan Pleasant has 272 yards and four TDs through two games (Painted Barn Media)

Game stats

Pioneer rushing – Jaythan Pleasant 12 carries, 162 yards, 3 TD, Braylon Grayson 11 carries, 90 yards, Nathan Elrod 10 carries, 57 yards, Dawson Haley 1 carry, 2 yards

Warrior rushing – Malaki Dowell 33 carries, 253 yards, 3 TD, Tripp Pinion 12 carries, 54 yards, Nate Mullins 2 carries, 12 yards, Team 3 bad snaps, -40 yards

Pioneer passing – Nate Elrod 4-for-10, 63 yards

Warrior passing – Tripp Pinion 4-for-8, 46 yards

Pioneer receiving – Wes Sherrell 1 catch, 29 yards, Alex van Vuuren 2 catches, 22 yards, Braylon Grayson 1 catch, 12 yards

Warrior receiving – Thomas Paul 2 catches, 30 yards, Malaki Dowell 1 catch, 10 yards, Bray Frasier 1 catch, 8 yards

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