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Reigning state champs await Pioneers in playoffs

Alex van Vuuren and the Pioneers will be on the road Friday to face Oakland.

Way back in September, the Pioneers punched their ticket to the playoffs by winning in Cookeville for the first time in 34 years. On Friday, they’ll try to do something that hasn’t happened in even longer.

Warren County (1-7) will be looking for its first playoff win since 1983 when it makes the trip to Murfreesboro to take on the Oakland Patriots. It will be the seventh straight year the Pioneers and Patriots will clash, only this time it will be in the postseason.

Coach Matt Turner, like his team and the rest of Pioneer Nation, knows how much of a challenge it will be the unseat the defending state champions on their home field.

“Everybody knows how good Oakland is – we’ve seen it firsthand as a program the last few years,” said Turner, who is 0-2 against the Patriots at Warren County. “When I came in, I wanted to get to a point where we were playing meaningful games in November. That means you’re going to play good teams every time you suit up.

“Oakland is the best of the bunch, but to win championships, you’re going to have to beat the best at some point. We're the team to get the first shot.”

Oakland (10-0) comes into the matchup having won 25 straight games, including last year’s 6A state title, and 51 of its last 52 games overall. The Patriots haven’t lost since the 2019 state semifinals against Maryville. Also, nobody has beaten the Patriots on their home field in the last 54 tries, a nearly-decade run of dominance on their turf under coach Kevin Creasy.

The Patriots went 15-0 during their march to the championship last year, beating every opponent by at least two scores. Which team put up the toughest fight on the scoreboard – a 16-point loss – against Oakland last year? It was the Pioneers, who fell 36-20 on senior night at Nunley Stadium.

A lot has changed since that senior night, when the Pioneers had upperclassmen filling 20 of their 24 starting positions (including the kicker and punter). By this Friday in Murfreesboro, only one Warren County player who started that game will be in uniform against the Patriots.

Junior Braylon Grayson was a two-way starter in last year’s matchup and he’ll come into this one carrying the same jobs at linebacker and wing. Grayson has been the shining star in an otherwise rough season for the Pioneers, leading the team on both sides of the ball.

In just eight games, Grayson has piled up over 100 tackles in the regular season. It’s a new career high for the junior, who finished with a team-best 94 stops in 2020.

He also leads the way with 529 yards rushing and 249 yards receiving. Grayson has scored five times this season, including four through the air.

The only other Pioneer who started last year and was back this season is Dayton Jernigan. Warren County’s top lineman will be watching his eighth straight game from the sidelines as he was lost for the season late in the first half of the Cookeville victory. The Pioneers are 0-7 in games Jernigan hasn’t played and have been carved up by teams with good runners.

Oakland has the best running back in the state. Jordan James was named Thursday as one of the five semifinalists for the 2021 Mr. Football award in 6A, the same trophy CJ Taylor hoisted in December last winter. The senior running back, who already made a verbal pledge to attend Georgia next year, has already eclipsed 1,000 yards in the regular season and is fueling up for another postseason run.

James is the reigning 6A state championship game MVP after rushing for over 200 yards and six touchdowns in a 56-33 victory over Brentwood. James had 196 yards against a tough Pioneer defense last fall at Nunley Stadium.

Warren County will also have to be on the lookout for Miami commit Isaiah Horton, a game-breaking threat on the outside of the Oakland attack. Horton showed why he’s considered one of the top WR targets in the nation a few weeks ago when he had 120 yards and TD in Oakland’s huge rivalry game win against Riverdale. Horton was named the Game MVP against the Warriors after his big showing, which included a 64-yard TD catch.

Kade Hewitt triggers the Patriot offensive attack, which also includes do-it-all athlete Antonio Patterson. Oakland lines up ‘AP’ everywhere, including as a Wildcat QB. Patterson has 804 total yards this year and has scored four times.

The Pioneers will have to play their best defensive game of the year just to stay in striking distance with the Patriots. Coach Turner hasn’t been shy about the scouting report this week; Instead, he wants his Pioneers to embrace the challenge.

“We have to go there and play together and play hard. It should be exciting to get to play a team with all those dudes – it’s a chance to play against the best and see where we stack up,” said Turner. “We know we’re the underdogs – the whole state knows we’re huge underdogs. That’s OK with us. I just want to see us play our best game.”

Kickoff for Friday’s game is set for 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the following link:

Follow us on Facebook Live

As always, the Warren County Sports Authority will be on the scene Friday for the Pioneers' big playoff matchup with Oakland. Be sure to check in on our Facebook Live videos, which will include live interviews with coach Matt Turner before and after the game. Sideline reporters Ansley Mullican Murphree and Trevor Evans will be bringing you all the up-to-date information and we'll also be posting video highlights on Facebook and Twitter (@the_WCSA). Our sponsors this week are: Snider's Plumbing, Electric & HVAC, Crisp Springs Market, Leigh Holland – State Farm, Kirby Williams – Donald Hillis Realty, McMinnville Drug Center, Adam Wood – Farm Bureau, Bottoms Heating & Air and Supreme Building Supply.

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