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Simmons Says - Missing the seniors

It didn’t really hit me until I woke up this morning. Basketball season is actually over.

For some reason, I thought something would change overnight. There was just no way this fun run would end – not with a loss, not with tears, not one step short of the state tournament. And yet here we are – what do we do now?

There is going to be plenty more Pioneer wins in the future – even starting next week when the Pioneer soccer and baseball teams take the field. And future Warren County stars are being born every day, but it’s impossible to fully comprehend what this Class of 2021 has done the last eight months.

CJ Taylor, Aiden Cummings and Dante Elam – three seniors who likely put on Pioneer uniforms for the final time Monday in Murfreesboro – could go down as three of the most successful Warren County athletes of all time. That’s not a discredit to the other seniors who were with them on the football field or District 6AAA Tournament MVP Dee Spates – their legacies are all in place too. But for these three seniors, they were in the wars on the gridiron and hardwood, helping push Warren County back into relevance after decades of people treating Pioneer athletics like a doormat.

No Pioneer fan will ever forget watching CJ Taylor.

Taylor is always going to be the Rockstar – the Lennon and McCartney of the group. He’s held in reverence by all of Warren County, many of which have anointed him Warren County’s G.O.A.T. (That’s Greatest Of All Time, if you were wondering). Mr. Football proved to be pretty good at basketball too, with his iconic performance against East Hamilton cementing his legacy as a two-sport force.

My dad pondered this question after CJ hit six 3-pointers to drag the Pioneers back against the Hurricanes and push Warren County into the substate for the first time in 45 years – “When CJ is older and he’s telling his grandkids stories, what is the first story he is going to tell?”

Honestly, it’s hard to know. If my kids ever ask me about what I did in sports, I can tell them I lost my shoe in a basketball game once. That’s it – and they’re going to laugh at me.

But CJ, I mean, where do you start? Is it the game-winning TD at home in the final minute against Rockvale when Warren County beat a Murfreesboro school for the first time in over 20 years? Or is it the game-winning TD in the final minute against Siegel at homecoming?

How about hitting a buzzer beater to beat White County in the district championship, giving the Pioneers their first title in 43 seasons?

Oh yeah – that was just his JUNIOR year. Since then, he’s helped the Pioneer football team to its first winning season in 30 years, won Mr. Football, beat Blackman with a 309-yard rushing performance, topped 3,000 rushing yards in his career (on a 74-yard TD carry on his final run), scored his 1,000th point, won another district title and unleashed a barrage of 3-pointers in the region semifinals that nobody will ever forget.

He could start with any of those stories – or maybe he’d just start by talking about the guys who were with him every step of the way. His family, his brothers, his beloved teammates.

Aiden Cummings gave his all for the Pioneers.

Cummings is going to have plenty of stories of his own. As coach Chris Sullens pointed out after the Siegel game, Cummings has come as far as any Pioneer in the program. He entered as an afterthought to many – a kid with good size, but skills that weren’t going to translate for years (if ever).

Instead of sulking or calling it quits, he got in the lab. He put in the work every day, grinding to get better. It was all behind the scenes, where Cummings has operated for most of his career. He’s been in the trenches doing the dirty work, adding to the Pioneer success without getting the shine.

He didn’t care – he was always about what was best for the team. Give him 30 shots or 3, Cummings was going to do his job as long as it meant Warren County was winning.

His passion – and swagger - always seemed to be right under the surface of his stoic demeanor, but it was amazing when it bubbled through. There were times when Cummings would toss around a helpless player – usually from Sparta – in the paint, score as they banged away at his body and let out a roar.

His chest would puff out, a smile would spread across his face and he would stroll to the free-throw line like a conquering colonel cleaning up a battlefield. The paint was where Cummings went to war; he came out of it with bumps and bruises, but he’s survived and thrived.

A defender first, Dante Elam did whatever it took to help the Pioneers win.

As for Elam – let’s travel back to Jan. 29. Warren County was down by three in Sparta in the final seconds. White County was looking for the season sweep, which would all but clinch the No. 1 seed in the district tournament.

In those last few ticks, Taylor was swarmed – White County was hell bent on not allowing CJ to repeat his heroics in its gym again. Elam flashed open, ready to fire if he got a chance.

Just think about it for a second – Elam is standing there unguarded, probably knowing everybody in the building thinks Taylor is taking the last shot. He’s been the fourth or fifth option on the team for years – never one to take a big shot. More so, the Warriors seemed happy to leave him open.

When Taylor passed, Elam didn’t hesitate. Years of making his jumper effective led to that moment when he buried the tying shot at the buzzer, sending the game into overtime. Warren County would go on to win, a key victory in the battle for homecourt advantage.

Does Warren County make this run without that shot? Maybe, but the path would’ve been tougher. Elam’s shot meant the Pioneers would start the postseason at home. Charlie Dalton Gym proved to be the winning touch; Warren County won four straight postseason games to get to substate. When the Pioneers went on the road, the magic didn’t travel.

As the Pioneers gathered in the locker room at Siegel one final time, the coaching staff took turning praising the group. When talking about the seniors, assistant coach Adam Wood starting ticking off the things said to discredit them over the years – “They said ‘Dante can’t shoot,’ ‘CJ is just a football player,’ ‘Aiden won’t contribute until he’s a senior,’” Wood recalled.

What people didn’t realize was their limits (if they had any) individually would be covered up as a group. Their bond together would make them something more.

Winners of 77 games over four years.

District champs – TWICE.

Substate qualifiers.

Pioneer Legends!

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