This column is being presented free of charge for Lady Pioneer and Lady Raider fans. Special thanks to Thunder Radio for providing pictures and information on Coffee County and Painted Barn Media for providing photos of the Lady Pioneers!
I have been racking my brain all week in hopes of remembering a bigger girls basketball game at Charlie Dalton Gym in my decade-plus covering the Lady Pioneers. It’s hard to imagine there has been a more anticipated regular season game than this Friday’s matchup of top 10 teams in the state. There may not be any postseason games that were bigger either.
When No. 9 Coffee County makes its way to McMinnville to face No. 10 Warren County (state AP poll rankings), it’s going to be an electric night at the Dalt. Other than a region game held back during the Erick Baird days – a huge deal at the time – I don’t think I have fielded more questions about a Lady Pioneer basketball game than I have this week.
What makes this game even bigger is Coffee County and Warren County are district foes again. This will be the first of three regular season battles this year between the squads, with those three games likely to decide who wins the first District 6AAAA crown.
This will be the first time Warren County is playing a game with such huge stacks so early in the season. Just two years ago, coach Anthony Lippe inherited a program that had just one winning season in the last 19 years and needed to replace five senior starters. In his first season, Warren County won just two games. Last year, the Lady Pioneers went 12-14.
Now, the Lady Pioneers are 16-2 and enter Friday’s game riding a 12-game winning streak. When the first AP poll of the season dropped Monday, Warren County found itself ranked for the first time in over two decades.
While the excitement of this game is bubbling over in the community, coach Lippe is doing everything he can to keep himself and his team insulated from the talk.
“(I’m) Not reading all the headlines – whether they’re good or bad, I don’t want it to influence me. I want to have tunnel vision and get our team as good as we can be,” said Lippe after Wednesday’s practice. “From Day 1 as a coach, we wanted to create our own standard. The scoreboard or opponent wasn’t going to dictate how we play – good teams, bad teams, up or down, we’re going to play our game.
“All the noise can make it hard to stay focused, but we’re going to get together the next two days to get focused and do everything to prepare to get a win.”
On the other side, Coffee County is used to being a state heavyweight. Under coach Joe Pat Cope, the Lady Raiders have won 28, 27 and 28 games in the last three years. They enter Friday’s matchup at 15-3 following a 73-30 beatdown of Franklin County Tuesday.
One relief for Warren County will have to be that Bella Vinson has finally exhausted her eligibility in Manchester. The impressive forward was a nightmare matchup the last few years, scoring at will against Warren County (and everybody else – she finished with over 2,000 career points) to help Coffee County build a seven-game winning streak in the border battle.
Still, there is plenty of talent on the Coffee County roster. Warren County has emerging stars too.
Here’s an in-depth breakdown of Friday’s matchup:
Warren County’s whole philosophy has been about playing as a team and it has worked well. If there’s been a standout, it would be Perkins – a junior forward who can guard every position and has emerged offensively.
Perkins started taking her game to the next level last postseason, earning all-tournament accolades as she started to find an offensive rhythm. She picked up right where she left off this year, terrorizing opponents with her length in the Lady Pioneer press while using her athleticism and a great first step to flourish around the rim offensively.
Perkins is averaging a team-best 11.6 points per game for the Lady Pioneers. She also ranks first in blocks and is in the top three in rebounds and steals.
Coffee County’s splendid post will draw plenty of attention from the Lady Pioneers. It’s for good reason – Gannon can score in bunches, especially against Warren County. She scored in double figures in both of Coffee County’s victories over the Lady Pioneers last year, including a 16-point performance in a 66-22 domination in Manchester.
Gannon, who is scoring 12.7 points per game this season, knows how to play through constant double teams. She’s a deft passer out of the post, especially when surrounded by an army of good shooters. Her size – a legit 6-foot-2 – allows her to finish over people at the rim, though she doesn’t have a problem bulldozing through defenders too.
Other players to watch:
Sable Winfree, Lady Pioneers – The sophomore guard is the engine of Warren County’s attack. She leads the team in assists and steals, while also scoring 9.4 points per game. Winfree has been up to the challenge against Warren County’s toughest foes this year, including dropping 19 points in a pivotal win over Lawrence County in the Sonic Shootout.
Elli Chumley, Lady Raiders – A senior who has seen it all during her tremendous career at Coffee County, Chumley ranks second on the Lady Raiders in scoring (10.8 ppg) while also pulling down over six rebounds a game. Chumley is a force in the paint and has a great connection with Gannon, giving the team a twin towers look on both ends.
Brienne Kelsey, Lady Pioneers – The lefty sniper is going to have a target on her back Friday. Coffee County will be determined to make sure ‘Sticks’ doesn’t get any clean looks from deep. Kelsey has hit 19 triples in Warren County’s last five games (5-0).
Olivia Vinson, Lady Raiders – She may be a freshman, but Vinson plays with the poise of an upperclassman. The younger sister of Coffee County star Bella Vinson (who was a Ms. Basketball finalist last year and signed with Lipscomb), Olivia has been battling Sable Winfree since both were stars of their county’s middle school teams. Olivia averages 9.3 ppg, third-best on the Lady Raiders.
Keys to victory for Warren County
1. Shoot it well from deep.
It’s no secret the Lady Pioneers are going to give up some size against Coffee County. Warren County is going to be at a size mismatch every time they step on the court, it just so happens the Lady Raiders have the towering Gannon sisters that can be a nightmare on a small team.
To combat the size mismatch, Warren County has to make the math work in its favor. The Lady Pioneers need many 3-pointers to cancel out the easy layups Coffee County is undoubtedly going to get due to its massive advantage in the paint.
Luckily, the Lady Pioneers have capable shooters who can heat up in an instant. Junior Brienne Kelsey has been on fire during the team’s 12-game winning streak, including drilling 13 triples in a three-game stretch down in Florida after Christmas. Kelsey has sank a team-high 40 3-pointers this season.
Sable Winfree may be in a bit of scoring slump (she has just four points in the last two games), but she’s still hitting north of 40 percent from deep this season. Shelby Smartt is coming off a 14-point performance against Shelbyville where she canned four from deep, while Mia Hobbs and Kyra Perkins aren’t shy to let it fly if they get a clean look.
2. Stay out of foul trouble/Get Coffee County into foul trouble
Warren County has compiled a 16-2 record this year with balanced scoring, leaving opponents unable to load up on just one person. While that spread-out attack means the Lady Pioneers aren’t necessarily relying on any one player, they still don’t have the type of depth to deal with major foul trouble.
The team’s winning streak, which dates back to Dec. 3, coincides with when coach Lippe narrowed his rotation to just six players: Sable Winfree, Perkins, Hobbs, Kelsey, Shelby Smartt and Savannah Winfree. Getting healthy has allowed the Lady Pioneers to play eight players consistently as seniors Jaden Smartt and Rudy DeArmond both seems recovered from knee injuries suffered during the season. Still, Warren County doesn’t need any of its starters saddled with early fouls, particularly Sable and Perkins – the team’s two defensive stalwarts.
On the other side, the Lady Raiders won’t want to see Chloe Gannon – the team’s leading scorer and rebounder – on the bench much Friday. While her freshman sister, Channah Gannon, is a more than capable post player too, Warren County’s odds of winning go up if Chloe Gannon’s minutes go down.
3. Make it a two-minute game
The Lady Pioneers have thrived in the clutch this year, winning all three of their overtime games, including ending a 20-game losing streak to White County in the Sonic Shootout championship game held on Sparta’s home court. Shelby Smartt has been a sniper in the late seconds, hitting a pair of go-ahead baskets in those late wins.
If Warren County wants to pull of another big upset Friday (and it would be an upset, even if it’s at the Dalt: Coffee County has beaten the Lady Pioneers seven straight times and won 9 of the last 10 meetings), they have to be within striking distance in the final two minutes. Since Lippe has taken over, Coffee County has won all four meetings by a combined 131 points.
Friday’s matchup doesn’t feel like it will be a blowout – the largest margin of defeat either has suffered this year was Warren County losing by 10 to Sparta in December (Coffee lost two games this year by nine points – Page and Blackman). If this is close down the stretch, then Warren County will have some confidence knowing it’s finished strong in key moments this season.
It wouldn’t hurt if the Tree City Mafia was out in full force Friday, making it difficult for Coffee County to communicate when the Lady Raiders have the ball.
Let’s get this out of the way, just because I always have to add a disclaimer: the Lady Pioneers and Lady Raiders have plenty of respect for each other. Many of the kids have been battling on the courts for years, dating back to when they were just little kids. They are friendly rivals in the sense that they aren’t going to be carrying extra malice into Friday’s game – it will only be about getting the job done. Likewise, both coaching staffs are very complimentary of their counterparts Friday, knowing the teams have done everything right in the past two months to earn their respective rankings in the state.
Now that I got that out of the way – these two schools don’t like each other. There is a good, ol’ fashioned hate boiling between Coffee County and Warren County, born out of proximity and countless battles in every sport. It’s never malicious and I don’t expect there to be a brawl on the court Friday, but there is definitely bad blood.
I’m happy there is some friction – it is what makes sports extra fun. When the game tips off, I expect Charlie Dalton Gym – especially the Tree City Mafia – to be bonkers. I also expect both teams to do everything they can to bring home bragging rights for their respective communities. It’s the biggest game of the season for both because it’s the next game, in coach-speak, but there is also some little extra that doesn’t have to be spoken. The players know it, the coaches know it and the fans know it.
My favorite thing is the duel on the sidelines. Anthony Lippe has completely rejuvenated the Lady Pioneers in his third year at the helm, while Joe Pat Cope has turned Coffee County into a perennial state contender in his short time in Manchester. They’re both good coaches and unique styles of their own. They’ll shake hands before and after the game, but this isn’t like when Chris Sullens and Eric Mitchell led their respective teams into District 6AAA championship wars the last two seasons.
Sullens and Mitchell are best buddies – Lippe and JPC aren’t.
If you want to get a refresher on what I’m talking about, check out my column from last year when things got a little snippy in Manchester in the final two minutes of a blowout: https://www.wcsportsauthority.com/post/the-wc-coffee-rivalry-lives-on
I’m really going to enjoy Friday’s game. I hope everybody comes out to see it!
How to watch
It’s pretty easy – if you want to see the state-ranked Lady Pioneers up close Friday, buy a ticket. Here is the link for the game: https://gofan.co/app/events/411789?schoolId=TN8715
If you can’t make it to the Dalt, then Joe Harvey’s tremendous team will have the game live on YouTube with the Hall of Famer Jay Walker on the call. Here’s the link for the online broadcast: https://youtu.be/USI85dZ4QUg
Yeah right, like I'm going to give bulletin board material for JPC to use or get dirty looks from the Lady Pioneers Friday night. I'm not going to make a prediction now - I will go out on the limb if these teams meet in the District 6AAAA finals, which I expect will happen. For what it's worth, I picked Coffee County to win the district in the preseason media poll. My only prediction Friday is Charlie Dalton Gym is going to be packed for a girls game - something that is long overdue for a school with such a prestigious history in the sport.