Back in 2018, I had given up any thoughts of becoming a banker and realized being micromanaged as an ad manager wasn’t going to be a long-term career path. I went back to what I always was meant to be – a sports guy.
The timing couldn’t have been better because I was about to be introduced to one of my favorite teams I’ve ever covered. The Lady Pioneer softball team was stocked with top talent, but – even better for me – some great personalities. That season, Warren County really started surging as a program, becoming the dominant softball team in District 6AAA.
When the Lady Pioneers claimed their first district tournament title, thumping Cookeville 17-2, they did so with an all-star cast in the dirt. Every girl who started that night in the infield is in college now. Ashton Whiles, Emily Mikkola, Hailey Wood and Lexie Chadwell have all made it to the next level and their names should sound familiar – we’ve done a feature on each of them in the last month at the Warren County Sports Authority.
Not to be left out, catcher MaKenna Mason is also in college and pitcher Rhealee Johnson will be next fall (the current senior has signed to play at University of the Cumberlands).
The 2018-19 Lady Pioneers will always be in my pantheon of favorite teams to cover, joining the Pioneer basketball teams of the last two years, the 2020 Pioneer football team and the 2012 Lady Pioneer volleyball team. All of those teams had two things in common: they did things and won games few other groups have ever done in Warren County before or since and every player knew their role.
I could go on for days about the things the 2018 Lady Pioneers were able to do (along with the 2019 group), but I’d rather focus on the five girls we’ve featured lately. Mason, Mikkola, Chadwell, Whiles and Wood all make any team they are on better because they’re willing to play a role.
Links to our features of the five Lady Pioneers:
The WC Sports Authority podcast with Mikkola, Wood and Chadwell as guests (Dec. 2020)
I would say I was introduced to that three years ago, but it really was a reintroduction to most of them. I’ve known of them all for nearly a decade, tracking their careers on the diamond from their youth days at the Civic Center up to their times as talented Lady Pioneers.
I can never forget Mason playing for Sonic back in the day, with her mom Lisa Mason coaching. Even then, it was easy to realize MaKenna was going to be a big-time player. I was always struck by how willing she was to accept a role behind the plate – not exactly the most glamorous positions for kids. Everybody loves being the pitcher or starring at shortstop – Mason was more than happy putting on her suit of armor and protecting the plate. She did it then, and she does it now for Motlow.
While I will never say a bad thing about Mikkola, Chadwell or Whiles, I’ll be forever bitter at them for ruining my lone year of coaching. Back in the day, I was an assistant coach on a local youth softball team. I thought our team could win it all – and it probably would’ve if that trio wasn’t standing in our way.
Though she never wanted time in the spotlight, Mikkola has always been a star. She was terrifying to play against as a coach – you just knew she was going to do something to break the game open. It didn’t change as she got older.
With all the talk of GOATs in Warren County sports the last few months, Mikkola easily could toss her hat in the ring when it comes to talented Lady Pioneers. She may be saddled with the dreaded, “Jack of all trades but master at none,” moniker, but it shouldn’t be an insult. There may be only a handful of former Lady Pioneers who can say they were all-district in three different sports (volleyball, basketball and softball) as well as a two-time district champ and region champ.
I’ll always remember Mikkola as a winner first and foremost and team player, even if her trophy case at home is probably littered with individual awards.
Chadwell may have taken a different path than any of her college counterparts to the next level. She wasn’t a decorated individual player or an instant starter in high school. In fact, even as a senior she usually was a defensive specialist that didn’t hit.
What makes Chadwell special is her embrace of a small role, that is hugely important, and how she leads behind the scenes. Chadwell is always the team mom, even in times when she wasn’t the oldest player on the team. Her ability to be a comforting voice in the hardest times resonates with teammates – both at Warren County and Motlow.
I spent a lot of last year's COVID shutdown around Chadwell. She was working at my brother's restaurant and I like to eat at Mud Bums, so we got time to chat about the game. It was always impressive to listen to her talk softball - one thing that stuck out was how she never talked about herself unless she was prompted. She just wanted to talk about her teammates and what they were doing and how she was so proud of them.
I have no doubt Chadwell is going to make an excellent coach whenever she decides to hang up her cleats. She has a passion for the game, the unwavering trust of players and an undeniable knowledge of what it takes to win. Also, she’s the first Lady Pioneer I would pick if my life depended on somebody catching one of my wild throws from shortstop to first base. You’re always in good and caring hands with Chadwell.
What can I say about Whiles? She’s easily one of the memorable personalities to come through Warren County. As easy as it would be to remember what she did on the field – like the many towering home runs she hit to become the program’s all-time leader in long balls – I always remember Whiles from off the field.
When I was working on the feature on Ashton this weekend, we got to talking about how we go way back. She (thankfully) didn’t remind me of how she pitched her team past the one I was helping coach all those years ago, but we did talk about pitching lessons.
Many don’t think of Whiles as a pitcher now, just a menacing power hitter. But when she was rising up the ranks in Warren County, Whiles was feared in the circle. It wasn’t just batters though – sometimes those catching her had to summon courage. I’d know, I was one of those people.
Whiles took lessons from my then-girlfriend and I would come by lessons to pass the time. One day, I got recruited by Ashton to catch as she wanted somebody else behind the plate that day. At that time, I just knew her as the friendly and goofy kid who had a rocket arm. In mere seconds, I realized Ashton morphed into a different person when she put her focus on the mitt.
I can only imagine the look college pitchers get from Whiles now when she zeroes in on a fastball and blasts it 250 feet.
Wood was really the only big surprise to me when I started covering again in 2018. As she’s so fond of hearing about now, I only remembered her from her early days as being – how should I put it – not so great at softball. We talked about it when I came back to the game in 2018 and we still talk about it now when we chat about softball.
In 2018, nobody would believe Wood wasn’t a natural. She was named the District 6AAA MVP after hitting over .400, scoring a ton of runs and joining with Mikkola to be an unbeatable pair up the middle of the Lady Pioneer defense. When I reminded Wood of her at WCMS, she told me what changed that transformed her.
“I didn’t want to be bad anymore. I wasn’t going to stop until I was good,” Wood has told me countless times.
I was reminded of her tireless work ethic in the last week when a photo popped up on Facebook of Wood in college. She had ice bags all over her body, the result of playing over 10 games in a week, including four in the span of 30 hours.
Wood has dealt with a shoulder injury dating back to that 2018 season, one that she has put off surgery for to continue to play the sport she loves. While anybody else would have been absolutely miserable limping off a field covered in ice bags and wraps to aid their bruised and beat up body, Wood was smiling and threw up a thumbs up.
It’s been a pleasure telling the stories of our college athletes – and we’ll be doing many more soon. Showing their accomplishments at the next level helps encourage the next crop of Pioneers and Lady Pioneers that it is possible to make it from Warren County.
As much as Mason, Mikkola, Chadwell, Whiles and Wood are shining examples of that, they are a lot more as well. For me, they are a constant reminder of why I love sports and covering our local players. They’re always going to be part of the stories I tell for decades.