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Simmons Says - A special group of Lady Pioneers

The Lady Pioneers have been all smiles during the postseason (PBM photo)

Over the years, I began developing a sixth sense for when something special was going to happen at Warren County High School. There was always a sign (sometimes multiple ones) that would tip me off that a group of Pioneers or Lady Pioneers were about to captivate our town.

When boys basketball made its push to substate last winter, you weren’t shocked. CJ Taylor is the greatest athlete in the last 40 years at Warren County – he and his ride-or-die senior class wasn’t going out without a fight. Same for football – with Taylor leading the way and group of seniors who were molded together from childhood and ready to fight for every inch, there was no doubt they had the chance to do something few teams in Warren County have done before.

Even the back-to-back substate girls soccer teams in 2012-13 featured two all-state players – Ansley Mullican and Morgan McCormick. They were also surrounded by 8-10 all-district Lady Pioneers, a star-studded cast that also had been together from childhood and grew into a monster. Around that same time, the Lady Pioneer volleyball team became a 40-win juggernaut with a core group of seniors who were on a singular mission to beat Cookeville and win a district (they did both).

The same scenarios applied to a handful of baseball teams that claimed district titles in the last decade (including the 2019 group that was only submarined by an unwise coach kicking off Jack Keele before the season and Brooks Helton hurting his elbow late). Softball was the same way – those 2017-19 groups were absolutely LOADED with talent and were churning out championships so quickly that you were almost shocked when they lost.

I bring up all those dominant Warren County teams now because I must say, I didn’t see the 2022 Lady Pioneers coming. They’ve been one the most pleasant surprises of any group I’ve covered and now they’re one win away from a state tournament appearance.

I’m not sure why these Lady Pioneers snuck up on me – they have all the ingredients that have been used to make great teams from Warren County before. There’s a phenomenal coach, a generational talent leading the way, a group that has been through battles together from a young age and an unbreakable bond in the locker room that translates to the field.

Let’s examine those:

Gooby Martin – what more can I say? There is a reason why he was named ‘Coach Clutch’ by the WC Sports Authority earlier this year. If he wasn’t already a Hall of Famer, I’d be making a huge push for that to happen this year. It’s crazy – he’s one of the few people who I believe could have made the WC Sports Hall of Fame if you only examined his athletic career (where he was a true force on the mound) or their coaching career (117 wins and counting in eight years, including two substate appearances, a region championship, two district tourney titles and two regular season titles).

Gooby Martin is a great leader for WCHS softball (PBM photo)

He's somebody the players respect, revere and resonate with at the same time. Gooby has the unique gift of saying the right thing at the right time to his team (always relaying it with the right tone), pushing the right buttons at the perfect time (like his last-minute lineup changes this week) and getting the most from his players. It’s no wonder that so many girls who have graduated and moved on to college teams always come back and talk with Gooby – he’s a mentor to a decade of talented Lady Pioneers who, almost unanimously, love their leader.

But… Coaches are only as good as the talent they get to work with. I’ve said for years that Gregg Popovich and Bill Belichick could come to Warren County and struggle if our talent isn’t up to par. Thankfully, the Lady Pioneers don’t lack for talent. In fact, they may have their own G.O.A.T. in the circle every night.

I’ve already been pondering the idea that pitcher Madison Hollis may be Warren County’s greatest softball player – that was before she helped push the Lady Pioneers to the brink of the state tournament. Now, it’s almost impossible to argue she’s had the best run of any player to ever pick up a yellow ball at Warren County.

If you want to argue some before her had more talent, I’ll allow it (though it may be futile). There is no argument when it comes to success and raw numbers though – Hollis has the edge. She now has nine postseason wins in the circle, easily the most in school history. She’s also been a part of a district regular season title (2021), district tournament title (this season), region championship (2019) and – the cherry on top – a potential state-tournament squad.

If not for a COVID-cancelled 2020 year, Hollis may be the Home Run Queen of the program as well as being the best pitcher to ever toe the rubber for Warren County. I’ve never seen her happier on the softball field than in the last three weeks, when she’s led a truly special run through the postseason. You could tell she took it personal when trying to beat Coffee County in the district (her diving play that happened right in front of me will forever be a highlight in my mind), while her giant smile and endless hugs after wins lately are something to behold.

I love my job for many reasons, but right near the top of the list is getting to see great athletes and true warriors for Warren County go out with gusto. CJ Taylor did it last year. Katie Toney did it last fall. Now, Madison Hollis is doing it for the Lady Pioneers.

Madison Hollis, middle, is loving life in the postseason (PBM photo)

She’s not the only one rewriting their legacy as Lady Pioneers. The entire senior class – featuring Hollis, Shelby Roberts, Aleya Esparza and Marli McBride – have cemented their status as one of the best groups to lace up their cleats for Lady Pioneer softball. They may not have multiple college signees like many of the groups before them, nor were they all first-day contributors as freshmen like the 2019 group, but they are the first class to play in substate twice (and could be the first to play in a state tournament with one more win).

If I could describe this group with one word, it would be ‘survivors.’ Shelby Roberts made a comment on senior night that stuck with me about how these four are the last ones still standing. And she’s right – this group was much bigger when they emerged from WCMS as CTC champs as eighth-graders, but one by one, they’ve left the game in the last four years.

As the final four, Hollis, Roberts, Esparza and McBride are together succeeding once more and each giving the Lady Pioneers unique leadership.

Roberts, the 2021 infielder of the year in District 6-AAA and Offensive MVP of District 6-4A this year, is the perfect compliment to Hollis at catcher. She has Zen-like patience, unflappable confidence and a competitive fire burning under her stoic – and smiling – demeanor. She leads by example from the lead-off spot, setting the tone every night for how the offense will flow.

Madison Hollis and Shelby Roberts are inseparable on the diamond (PBM Photo)

While Hollis is the star and Roberts is the quiet leader, Esparza is the enforcer. She’s the first senior who will make sure everybody is in line and doing what they’re supposed to do. I’ve known Aleya since she was just starting to play softball and she hasn’t changed much – she’s still a no-nonsense player who is a cutthroat competitor. If you see her smiling on the field (during the game), that’s like seeing an eclipse. She saves her smiles for when the Lady Pioneers win (and, even then, it’s a quick flash and she’s back to figuring out who’s next).

McBride, in my estimation, is the embodiment of what you want from any four-year player. Marli stuck it out and made sure when she got her chance that she would take advantage. It would’ve been easy for McBride to look for other opportunities when she was buried on the depth chart for years, but she grinded away behind the scenes, developing her raw power and honing her craft in left field. Now, she’s always smiling as a happy-go-lucky senior who hits bombs, makes diving catches and helping the Lady Pioneers win. I’m sure McBride loves the homers and the web gems, but her true happiness comes from being part of the success.

That’s a mantra that applies to the whole team – all year coach Martin has talked about how this group plays for each other and never cares about who is getting the praise. They just want to win and celebrate in each other’s success. It’s inspiring stuff and a real treat when you get to experience it up close. I’m lucky to be able to sit in the dugout or visit in practice – these girls keep that same energy at all times. They have genuine love for each other.

I’m looking forward to seeing who is going to be the next star. Are the seniors going to see this all the way through? Will Alyssa Mosley continue to be a two-way force at shortstop and at the plate? Could Jaz Ward or Kora Forbes be the right person at the right time to deliver a clutch hit or can Dallis Melton deliver a game-winning catch in right field? Are the freshmen (Callie Roberts, Addison Smith and Ky Damon) going to continue to come in clutch?

I don’t have the answers right now, but I do know that I have stopped underestimating this group. They already proved me wrong by winning a district title, now they’re on the doorstep of a state tournament. One thing is for sure – I may not have thought of them as the next great Warren County team before the year, but nobody is going to forget them after this run.

Sometimes silly, always fun - the Lady Pioneers enjoy being around each other in the dugout (Painted Barn Media photo)

Sisters Shelby Roberts and Callie Roberts are enjoying their time as teammates on a great Lady Pioneer squad (Painted Barn Media photo)

The Lady Pioneer softball team, which won the District 6-4A championship last week, features, front row, from left, Marli McBride, Madison Hollis, Aleya Esparza and Shelby Roberts. Second row, Jessie Young, Callie Roberts, Jaz Ward, Dallis Melton, Lily Rains, Addison Smith, Kora Forbes, Maggy Whiles, Alyssa Mosley, Annabelle Reinitz, Piper Lanning, Brooke Wilson and Ky Damon. Back row, coaches Morgan Frye, Gooby Martin and Cody Crouch.

The Lady Pioneers have had plenty to celebrate in the postseason. Pictured are Jessie Young, Addison Smith and Kora Forbes after winning the district title (Painted Barn Media Photo)

Seniors Aleya Esparza, Madison Hollis, Shelby Roberts and Marli McBride have been tremendous leaders this season (Painted Barn Media photo)

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