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Simmons Says - Girls programs finding basketball success

Girl power is sweeping through the gyms in Warren County. All across the county, more and more girls are stepping up and showing out, giving this town a lot to talk about.

I’m used to seeing success in female sports locally – it seems we’ve had a high school team making a push toward state almost every year since I starting covering sports. Usually though, those teams were on the diamond or the pitch, with the Lady Pioneer softball and soccer programs taking turns as the dominant female programs at the school.

Those successful teams have churned out some of the best Lady Pioneers of the last decade – Katie Toney, Ansley Mullican, Hailey Wood, Emily Mikkola, Morgan McCormick, Bekah Jackson, Ashton Whiles and many, many more. District championships were earned outside, as were region wins and trips to the substate.

Things usually were much quieter for the females when sports moved indoors. Success in the winter has usually been reserved for the cheerleaders and Pioneerettes, who both take center stage while our basketball teams floundered. It’s just the truth – in the last two decades, Warren County has only seen one girls team finish with a winning record (and, ironically, the coach was fired after that season).

Boyd and Covenant have helped pick up some of the slack for the girls on the hardwood, competing and winning at a high level at times in the TNCAA. Overall though, there never seemed to be a time when there were a lot of good girls teams going at the same time at multiple levels.

That seems to be changing this season. Warren County enters this weekend’s matchup with LaVergne at 7-2, while the Lady Broncos can rest assured their perfect 14-0 record will stay intact until well after Santa has come and gone (Boyd doesn’t play again until Dec. 28). These records aren’t a product of tricky scheduling either – both programs after facing the same competition they’ve seen for years (and lost to…. for years). The only difference now is Warren County and Boyd are winning.

While it is obvious both programs have steadily built behind their current leadership – Anthony Lippe and Tim Page, respectively, deserve a ton of credit for their work in the last 3 years – it isn’t hard to see what has changed on the local hardwoods. The talent is there and it only seems to be growing as the groups build unbreakable bonds.

Warren County is fueled by its lightning quick sophomore point guard Sable Winfree, along with a trio of seasoned juniors – Mia Hobbs, Kyra Perkins and Shelby Smartt. All four had to take their lumps as freshmen, including Hobbs, Perkins and Smartt experiencing the growing pains of a two-win season their first year, but it’s paying off right now. The quartet, backed up by a deep bench of solid role players, have the Lady Pioneers poised for their first winning season in eight years.

Sophomore Sable Winfree has been an instant star since arriving at WCHS (Painted Barn Media)

You can see the modernization of the game in how the Lady Pioneers play. They don’t play a slow-down, plodding pace or feed it in the post and hope for the best (bucking that trend tends to happen when none of your players are over 5-foot-9). Warren County plays a tenacious, full-court style and rolls out lineups with five interchangeable offensive weapons, all capable of passing, shooting or putting it on the floor.

Coach Lippe talked about what makes his team unique after Tuesday’s win over Tullahoma – one that avenged one of their two losses this season.

“We have a lot of different girls who can score… We are at our best when we share the basketball. We drive and create - when we are really attacking and kicking the ball, that’s when we’re playing really well,” said Lippe.

Winfree, Hobbs, Perkins and Smartt are all guards who do a little bit of everything. Jaden Smartt, the team’s undersized and fearless center, is a lynchpin of the attack as a facilitator, finisher and veteran leader. When the Lady Pioneers go to the bench, each player has a role they can fill. Brienne Kelsey and Rudy DeArmond (when healthy) are shooters, Savannah Winfree is a brick-wall defender and Lex Verge rebounds and protects the paint.

(Sidenote: It has to be mentioned after focusing on the perks of potentially bringing county basketball together in my last Simmons Says that the current Lady Pioneers have a starters from Eastside (S. Smartt), Centertown (J. Smartt) and Irving College (Hobbs). Two of their key reserves – Kelsey and DeArmond – are from Morrison and Dibrell, respectively. Something is being done right in the county.

Being versatile, playing with pace and employing an in-your-face press is exactly how Boyd is 14-0 right now. The Lady Broncos are simply mauling teams with a style that is defined by dominating, full-court defense and an offense full of threats.

See if this sounds familiar – “The girls are playing as a unit and when they do that, they are special.”

That was coach Page talking about the Lady Broncos, who also owe their success to having a special sophomore guard, Laney Copeland, and an army of experienced, capable wings.

Among those leading the Lady Broncos is senior Lia Wright, who is Page’s Swiss Army knife every night. Wright does it all – she’s the team’s leader in scoring (15.0 points per game) and assists (4.5 dimes per game) while also ranking second in steals (four thefts a game) and third in rebounds (5.2 boards). She’s also the team’s “Undisputed leader,” according to Page.

It must be nice getting to lead such a talented group.

Laney Copeland never misses a chance to push the pace for Boyd.

Copeland has taken over the keys of the Boyd offense this season after transferring in from White County and she doesn’t mind revving the engine. Over the last few weeks, she has started to really find her groove (scoring 20-plus points in three December games) while transforming Boyd into a lethal scoring unit that averages 70.8 points per game.

The roles are defined at Boyd too. Audrey Durham (10 points, five boards and four steals a night) teams up with Wright to form one of the best forward combinations at the TNCAA/TSIAA level, while Sara Kate Brogden and Krista Chisam are capable shooting guards who play great defense. Center Anna Jones helps the Lady Broncos flip the script as the defensive stopper in the paint transforms into a lethal outside assassin on offense (13.8 points per game on 44 percent shooting from deep).

Jaycie Hodges can also sturdy the team with her post scoring, while Kelly Bush (a recent transfer), Sarah Woodruff (late roster addition) and Emma Miller (just returned after an ACL injury) are turning Boyd into a two-deep unit. Even youngster Cydney Jane Perry, who spends most of her days leading the Boyd 7-8 grade team, steps in from time-to-time to play pesky defense.

The best part is these teams are only getting started. I think they’re only going to get better when the calendar flips to 2022 and, with both teams returning the majority of their rosters in 2022-23, it could be a great two-year stretch for both schools.

That may be selling it short too – there are some really talented elementary kids who will be hitting the high school scene before long. Morrison PG Jayla Garibaldi looks ready made to step in and compete for varsity minutes next year, while Eastside sixth-grader Sarah Kate Winfree is a scoring machine with a great pedigree (her two older sisters, Savannah and Sable, are already playing big minutes for the Lady Pioneers). Add in a growing roster at WCMS, bolstered by an impressive group of seventh-graders, and you’ve got a pretty good pipeline heading toward the high schools very soon.

I’m all for it. Our local girls basketball teams have known losing all too well for the last decade, it’s time for them to break out and have their moments of glory on the hardwood. They’re already happening right now – and they should only continue in the coming months.

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