Season ends for Pioneers
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As the late Dennis Green would say – Oakland was what we thought they were. The Patriots looked every bit like the No. 1 team in the state and the reigning 6A champions Friday night, dismantling the Pioneers 49-0 in the opening round of the playoffs.
Warren County saw its season end with the loss – its seventh straight after beating Cookeville to earn its playoff bid back in September. The Pioneers had hopes of giving the Patriots quite a fight in the opening round, but Oakland kicked it in high gear late in the second quarter and never looked back.
“The first quarter – we’re 7-0 and in there. But we’ve been our biggest opponent all year with self-inflicted wounds, putting ourselves behind the sticks and blown assignments on special teams,” said coach Matt Turner. “You could see how smooth, strong and athletic that team is. They’re so balanced. Sometimes you think you’d have them tackled and they’d touch the ground and boom, they’re gone.”
Georgia commit and TSSAA 6A Mr. Football semifinalist Jordan James dominated the first half. The Patriots’ main weapon ran roughshod over the Pioneers, finishing with 108 yards and three touchdowns before the break.
James broke the game open early in the second quarter, igniting a 10-minute run that changed it from a one-possession game to the mercy rule by halftime. James sliced through the Pioneers on a 62-yard TD run, gaining the corner at the line of scrimmage before cutting across the field and outracing all chasers to the opposite pylon to make it 14-0.
After James’ score, which included a personal foul penalty on the Pioneers behind the play, Oakland decided to get tricky at the Pioneer 45 on the ensuing kickoff. Instead of bombing it deep from a touchback, Avory Rogers dropped in a pooch kick that Chandler Lilly was able to track down at the Pioneer 12 for Oakland.
With the ball back deep in the Pioneer zone, Patriot QB Kade Hewitt hit a wide-open Marcus Bullard two plays later for a 4-yard score that pushed the lead to 21-0.
James added a 1-yard TD run with 2:14 left to make it 28-0, then Hewitt found Isaiah Horton, a Miami commit, for an 8-yard TD pass just before halftime. The last TD, which made sure the the mercy rule would be enacted right when the second half kicked off, was set up by an interception by Antonio Patterson at the Pioneer 34.
Oakland (11-0) didn’t have any trouble keeping up the intensity in the second half. Eric Taylor returned the opening kickoff 91 yards for a score, bobbling the ball on the catch before blowing straight through the Pioneer defense untouched for a house call. Patterson wrapped up the scoring in the fourth with a 5-yard TD run.
James put Oakland on the board early, scoring on the Patriots’ third play from scrimmage. The highly touted RB went nearly untouched from 21 yards out to make it 7-0 less than four minutes into the action.
Warren County got closest to scoring in the final stages, using the running of backup QB Alex van Vuuren and wings Keldrick Cox and Braylon Grayson to push to the Patriot 10. Grayson did the heavy lifting with a 42-yard run over the right edge, nearing breaking it all the way before getting ran out of bounds in the redzone.
Oakland kept the shutout intact though in the final two minutes, stripping Dawson Haley as the junior tried churning for extra yardage right near the goal line. It was just another bad break for the Pioneers while giving great effort, something that seemed to be a trend all season.
Warren County never seemed to get right after COVID-19 shut down its first three games, including the season opener just hours before kickoff. Even in the Pioneers lone win – a 21-14 victory that broke a 34-year drought at Cookeville – Dayton Jernigan, the team’s best lineman, was lost for the season with an ACL tear.
Every time the Pioneers seemed to get some daylight, there was a rain cloud that appeared to dampen the cause. It was the same Friday night.
It wasn't how coach Turner envisioned this season playing out, but he stayed positive when discussing their grit throughout the season.
“All the trials and tribulations, they overcame some things and earned – EARNED – this position. Squad 53, and this senior group, made sure that making the playoffs becomes the expectation,” said Turner.
Warren County will have to say goodbye to 10 seniors, but their core – including Grayson, QB Nate Elrod, van Vuuren, Donathan Lewis, a (hopefully) healthy Jernigan and more – will be back.
Building for Squad 54 begins Monday.
Antonio Patterson, No. 3 for Oakland, and Pioneer senior Eli Cantrell were among the top rushers for their respective teams Friday.
Oakland Passing – Kade Hewitt 5-for-9, 57 yards, 2 TD, John Wheaton 1-for-1, 20 yards, Max Lovinski 1-for-1, 7 yards, Silas Teat 0-for-1
Warren County Passing – Alex van Vuuren 2-for-5, 18 yards, Nate Elrod 3-for-8, 18 yards, INT
Oakland rushing – Jordan James 6 carries, 108 yards, 3 TD, Khalil James 2 carries, 52 yards, Antonio Patterson 4 carries, 40 yards, TD, Kade Hewitt 2 carries, 16 yards, Eric Taylor 1 carry, 15 yards
Warren County rushing – Braylon Grayson 8 carries, 56 yards, Nate Elrod 7 carries, 51 yards, Keldrick Cox 6 carries, 22 yards, Alex van Vuuren 6 carries, 20 yards, Eli Cantrell 7 carries, 12 yards
Oakland receiving – Isaiah Horton 3 catches, 40 yards, TD, Jesiah Gordon 1 catch, 20 yards, Khalil James 1 catch, 13 yards, Michael Foglia 1 catch, 7 yards, Marcus Bullard 1 catch, 4 yards, TD
Warren County receiving – Nate Elrod 2 catches, 18 yards, Braylon Grayson 2 catches, 11 yards, Harley Hernandez 1 catch, 5 yards
Squad 54’s early outlook
Coach Matt Turner didn’t waste time flipping the switch to the 2022 season. Following Friday’s game, he was telling all his returning players what would be needed to reverse the issues from this year’s 1-8 campaign. Mainly, it’s all about getting stronger.
“I told the guys after the game, ‘there is no offseason for Squad 54.’ It may be a while before we have on helmets and pads, but we have to live in the weight room. We got go get to them, eat them, live them,” said Turner. “We’re going to move forward with Squad 54. It’s time to keep building and keep grinding.”
Warren County should have a nice nucleus to build around next fall. The team’s top four tacklers coming into the playoffs are all due back next year, as are their statistical offensive leaders as well.
It all starts with LB/RB Braylon Grayson. The junior led the Pioneers in receiving, rushing and tackles this fall. With Grayson in the middle of the defense, there is hope Warren County can get stingy with its stop unit in 2022.
Nate Elrod and Alex van Vuuren, two guys who both took snaps at QB Friday, are also going to be lynchpins to the rebuild. After playing QB all season, Elrod showed he’s an all-around athlete by catching two passes from van Vuuren down the stretch.
Elrod was impressive in the opening quarter of Friday’s contest, breaking off runs of 24 and 17 yards to convert third downs. His connection with van Vuuren, no matter which one is at quarterback and which is at receiver, is evident.
Add in Donathan Lewis, a fast safety and dangerous kick returner who needs touches on offense, and the Pioneers have some threats. There is also hope Dayton Jernigan – one of the best lineman in Region 3-6A in 2020 when the Pioneers achieved a top-10 state ranking – will be healthy and ready to go by the start of the 2022 season.
There is hope for the Pioneers – and it’s not that hard to find.
Turner addresses playoff bid
It’s hard to avoid the criticisms of the Tennessee playoffs as the 1-7 team making it to November. The Pioneers were one of over 60 teams in the state to advance to the playoffs with a losing record across nine classifications, including holding the worst record of any 6A team in the postseason.
Coach Matt Turner won’t argue with detractors wondering why many sub .500 teams are still playing, but he still would rather be on the field than at home.
“Does a 1-7 team need to be in the playoffs? Maybe not, but this was better than the alternative. We could’ve been the one team that didn’t make it to the playoffs,” said Turner.
Warren County entered the playoffs as the No. 4 seed from Region 3-6A, a spot it earned by beating Cookeville back in September. Because of that win, the Pioneers had one more week of work together - something hundreds of programs didn't get this week. That’s something Turner wouldn’t want to give away, even if it ended with Oakland dominating on its way to a 26th straight win (and 55th straight victory at home).
“At the end of the season, there is only one team that is happy. Last week, a lot of teams went home unhappy. We got to make it another week,” said Turner.
Warren County currently plays in a 6A region with just five teams – the Pioneers, Lebanon, Shelbyville, Coffee County and Cookeville. Four teams advance to the playoffs in each of the eight 6A regions.
Here are the playoff outcomes of opponents the Pioneers faced in the regular season Friday:
Lebanon 42, Stewarts Creek 7
Shelbyville 23, Rockvale 21
Riverdale 22, Coffee County 7
DeKalb County* 35, East Hamilton 21
Columbia 30, Mt. Juliet** 10
*Non-region opponent, 4A playoffs
**Non-region opponent, 5A playoffs
The 2020 seniors show their support
A year after ending a 30-year stretch of losing seasons and becoming one of the best teams in program history, the 2020 seniors are still very invested in the Pioneer program. The tight-knit class was widely represented at Friday’s game in Murfreesboro, including several players who are still grinding away at the college.
Among those in attendance Friday were CJ Taylor (2020 Mr. Football and Vandy freshman linebacker), Kason Holder (a standout on both sides of the ball at Sewanee), Aiden Cummings (Cumberland University) and Dante Elam. Also checking out the game was former Pioneer and 2021 District 6AAA basketball tournament MVP Dee Spates.
Final salute to the seniors
Warren County honored its 10 seniors - Keldrick Cox, Ethan Bernhardt, Austin Connor, Conner Smith, Ojani Hernandez, Dylan West, Eli Cantrell, Tay Miller, Jonathan White and Hunter Pezzimenti – before last week’s regular season home finale against Lebanon. On Friday, those seniors laced up their cleats and hung up their helmets one final time.
Coach Turner had hoped for a better ending for his veterans, especially after such a rough start in 2021, but it just never came. Still, he doesn’t discount what they did to help keep the program moving forward.
“I wanted it for them – I may have wanted it even more for them than they wanted it for themselves. This season is just as important as last season and two seasons ago for my tenure. It’s about building the foundation,” said Turner.
Across the board, the third-year coach saw young men growing on and off the field. Not that their playing times are over, Turner urged them Friday to continue to learn from the lessons they received during such a topsy-turvy year.
“They’re great young men. One of the things we learned from this season is to never take a rep off. It’s not just football – there are reps in life. You have to punch the clock, get up everyday, hit the books – whatever it may be,” said Turner.
It is 286 days until kickoff for the 2022 season in Smithville.