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Simmons Says - Local athletes, stay home!

CJ Taylor became a two-sport legend by staying in Warren County.

CJ Taylor is immensely quotable. Whether it was guaranteeing wins or just two words – ‘Aight, Bet!’ Taylor talked the talk and walked the walk.

I have dozens of favorite lines from talking to CJ over the years, but the one I enjoy the most is one he repeats the most. After every signature win, either on the gridiron or hardwood, Taylor would reiterate two things: He wanted to be the G.O.A.T. Pioneer athlete and “Winning in Warren County means more.”

The first is going to take care of itself because of how he won as a Pioneer.

I’m not going to say schools were recruiting CJ – actually, yes I am. For the last few years, schools were actively trying to convince Taylor to leave Warren County and star on their teams. Some of it was simply peer recruiting – good friends from other schools trying to team up. Other attempts probably existed in the grey area of the TSSAA rulebook, but it didn’t matter – CJ was sticking with Warren County.

At this point, why would any homegrown athlete want to leave? Everything they want to accomplish in their careers can happen in Warren County.

If your focus is individual accolades, then what is bigger than winning Mr. Football in the biggest classification in Tennessee (while coming out of the toughest region)? Taylor just did that, proving a Pioneer can hoist the state’s most impressive hardware.

That’s just scratching the surface of individual honors Warren County has racked up in the last few years. Ike Gillentine just came back to McMinnville with a state wrestling medal around his neck, forged from years of pounding the mat in McMinnville. Kason Holder was the Region 3-6A DB of the year and named all-state.

Brooks Helton was recently the District 6AAA MVP, as was Hailey Wood. Both are now occupying diamonds in college – as are a bevy of former Lady Pioneers and Pioneers.

Katie Toney is a two-time, all-state honoree on the soccer field. Lauren Slatton just made the state golf tournament as a freshman. If there was a spring season last year, odds are Jack Keele (Baseball) and a Pioneer soccer player (Pick one – FD de Santiago or John Jackson) would have been District MVPs.

Currently, junior Madison Hollis has an argument for being the best softball player in District 6AAA. If there was a Region MVP in 2019, Hollis - who threw back-to-back shutouts - would have the trophy on her mantle right now.

We can go back further too: Logan Underhill – baseball District MVP, Caroline McKinley – Volleyball MVPs, Lauren Wilkinson – softball MVP, Christian Locke – state qualifier in cross country and track. The list goes on and on.

Warren County isn’t a hindrance to athletic achievement; It actively cultivates it. Our town is creating legends every day.

Covenant's Terry Hines and Boyd's Christian Rogers built legacies this year.

CJ Taylor isn’t the only one. Think about Boyd and Covenant right now. Christian Rogers could become a 2,000-point scorer for the Broncos next year and Terry Hines is going to graduate as the first Lion to score 1,000 points, coming in a season where Covenant won its first boys TNCAA title.

Are you after team success? Good, it’s happening all over Warren County. The Pioneer basketball team just won back-to-back district titles and made it to the substate, something only 15 other AAA schools can claim this season. Arguing that the football program will never be successful is moot after an 8-3 year that saw the Pioneers reach the top 10 in the state rankings.

The Lady Pioneer soccer team won the regular season district title last fall. When the Lady Pioneer softball team last completed a full season, it was named the 2019 Region 3AAA champions (after winning district titles the two previous years).

Region appearances aren't celebrated as crowning achievements in any sport anymore. They’re just expected. It feels like Warren County is due for one of its teams to break the barrier and make the state tournament soon (it may have happened last year if the baseball team wasn’t shut down).

The biggest argument I hear when people talk about moving their kids from here is exposure – they want their athletes to get looks from colleges. Well, I think college coaches are proving that if you’re good, they’ll find you anywhere.

Warren County isn’t exactly hard to locate either. At least not anymore.

By this fall, Taylor will join Krojhn Calbert in the SEC – the biggest and best football conference in the nation. When I first started covering sports in town, I remember people saying Cody Robinson’s signing at Duke (he bypassed a few SEC offers) could be a once-in-a-generation event – “We just don’t have those kinds of kids here often.”

How do you define “often?” If you mean every year, then yeah we don’t. As of right now, our football program – once clowned as the worst in the state – is about to produce its third Power 5 signing in the last decade. That’s not too shabby.

Dayton Jernigan and Braylon Grayson, two sophomores who were named all-region, could make it five Pioneers by 2023.

It would be hard to pick the team sport that hasn’t produced a college athlete recently. Just between baseball and softball, there are 10 former WCHS players at the next level. Are they playing on ESPN nightly? No. But they’re winning and having a blast – all thankful for their opportunity to get four more years.

Instead of thinking about kids leaving Warren County to find “better” athletics, I’d argue more kids should be looking to come to McMinnville and become stars.

Dee Spates is a great example. He was an afterthought at Blackman, watching from the bench and never getting an opportunity. He transferred to Warren County two years ago and blossomed into one of the best guards in the Midstate. Now, he’s a two-time district champion, a substate qualifier and a District Tournament MVP.

Coach Matt Turner only recruits his own hallways and look how well that turned out. When he took over, Kason and Ryland Holder were just focused on baseball. Granted, they are tremendous players who could help the diamond Pioneers to a title this spring, but they’ll do so knowing they already have four more years of athletics in front of them. They both signed with Sewanee football last week. More kids should follow in their footsteps.

If you’re a Warren County kid thinking about becoming a great athlete and being told it can only happen somewhere else, don’t believe the hype. It can happen right here.

Lace up the sneakers, buckle up the chinstrap and dig in the cleats. It’s fun becoming a Pioneer, a Lion, a Bronco.

Don’t let CJ Taylor claim Warren County’s G.O.A.T. status without a challenge.

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