Simmons Says - Takeaways from middle school basketball in WC
I didn’t go back and count, but I’m 99 percent sure I’ve never written more stories about elementary basketball than I did this winter. With the space to cover every single game, instead of just tossing in random box scores and pictures, I got a chance to really expand my coverage this year.
It was pretty the perfect time to do it too. The storylines, from the start of sixth grade ball to the great runs by the WCMS teams and culminating with Friday’s championship games, were superb. It’s never easy to project how some kids will grow and improve (or, sadly, if they’ll even stay in Warren County), but I think you have the like some of the building blocks that are emerging at the middle school level.
Now that we’ve reached the end of elementary and middle school basketball, I’d like to give some of my final takeaways from the season. As usual, these won’t all be without some controversy, but it wouldn’t be a Simmons Says column without sparking a little bit of debate.
Here we go:
I still love when teams embrace a little bit of spite
I don’t mind a lot of spite either – actually, I’m all for embracing a lot of spite. The winner this year goes to the young Irving College Tigers, who won the county championship in the 5-6 grade league.
If you missed it in the reporting this year, there was one quote that seemed to really stick with the Tigers this season. Early in the season, Centertown’s coach – in the opposite district – said his team was, “the team to beat in the county, not just District 2.” Eyebrows were raised immediately in District 1, which was being dominated by the Tigers.
When the two teams finally met in the county championship (after undefeated seasons), the Tigers prevailed, claiming their rightful spot as the best team in the county. And when the shirts were made, the Tigers made sure to throw a little bit of shade.
At the very bottom on the back of the shirts, it says, “We’re the best team in the county, not just District 1.”
That is chef’s kiss perfection when it comes to using a slight to fuel your rage. Michael Jordan would be proud of that kind of revenge tour.
The WCSA All-County teams were pretty accurate
I heard a few “what about…” comments when I put out my top 15 players in boys and girls county basketball (7-8 grade) early this month. In a few instances, I agreed with their questions –those last 2-3 spots probably had 7-8 kids in consideration and it was hard to make the final cut. Other times, it was fans wearing some rose-colored glasses trying to push their favorites. I don’t mind that at all; I vote for five Spurs to make the all-star game every year, even in a season like this when they’re one of the worst teams in the NBA.
When it came down to it though, I think my list proved to be pretty spot-on. The all-tournament teams on both sides were littered with the same kids I had selected just a week prior to the final games. On both sides, I was 10-for-11 (including MVPs Kealey Simpson and Isaiah Robledo). The only players I didn’t have on my teams that made the all-tournament teams were Centertown hero Shelby Miller, who hit the game-winning free throw in the championship, and Irving College super sub Anden Green (who would’ve been a lock to make an all-county team if I did it for 5-6 grade).
After 11 years of watching these games, I think I’ve finally gotten pretty good at talent evaluation.
Link to WCSA All-County Boys: https://www.wcsportsauthority.com/post/wcsa-all-county-boys-team
Link to WCSA All-County Girls: https://www.wcsportsauthority.com/post/wcsa-all-county-girls-team
WCMS teams made surprising late surges
Maybe it would be rude to call what the 7-8 grade Pioneers did down the stretch surprising, but making sectionals – and beating some really stout teams down the stretch of the season – was eye opening. Even more of a shock was the Lady Pioneers catching lightning in a bottle their last two weeks, making a push into the sectional quarterfinals after posting a losing record in the regular season.
The Pioneers were 6-6 at the midway point, not bad, but also not looking like the group who would surge into the final 48 teams in the state by February. Behind Carter Simpson’s scoring, DeShawn Adams’ control of the paint, Keyton Reno’s evolving two-way game and a slew of spot-up shooters, the Pioneers took off down the stretch, finishing 10-3 in their last 13 games.
I think the most impressive part of their run was doing it with a razor thin margin of error. Warren County didn’t have a deep bench (in some postseason games, their starters played every minute). One rolled ankle, jammed finger or a bout with foul trouble could’ve derailed the run in a moment’s notice. The Pioneers kept prevailing though, especially in close games where Simpson emerged as one of the most clutch young performers in recent memory.
For the girls, it would’ve been easy to give up hope of late success after Coffee County – seemingly loaded with talent on the girls side from sixth grade to their senior class – destroyed the Lady Pioneers in the Area Tournament. Instead, the Lady Pioneers regrouped and surprised a few teams (and me) while making a run in the TMSAA sectionals.
The best thing for WCMS is that they are going to return a bunch of players who gained valuable experience in the postseason. By the end of the year, coach Mendy Stotts had turned the team over to her seventh graders and they made the most of it.
It shouldn’t be hard for the Lady Pioneers to eclipse this year’s 10-16 mark, though it’s never easy to predict postseason basketball, when it only takes one bad night to end a great run.
Covenant has special young group
Throughout the winter, our WCSA readers have been fascinated by the runs the Lady Pioneers and Lady Broncos are making at the high school level. Both programs are doing things that haven’t been done in decades (in Warren County’s case) or ever before (like Boyd’s 32 wins – and counting).
Coaches Anthony Lippe and Tim Page are locked in on making more history this year, but they both have an eye on the future too. Ultimately, they don’t want this to be a one-and-done thing, where they flip the script for a season but then go back to having to scrap for 10 wins. Fortunately, they both have their cupboards stocked for (at least) one more season.
Warren County and Boyd may have the best girls teams in the present and near future, but Covenant is building something that could pay off in 3-4 years. The young Lady Lions had an unprecedented run this winter, going undefeated at the middle school level.
We’re going to have a more in-depth story on Covenant’s season soon, but be on the lookout for these Lady Lions. They have young talent and a young coach that all should grow together in the coming seasons.
Play the county championships on a neutral court
This is the easiest thing to fix in elementary basketball. It is beyond silly that the 5-6 grade county championships can occur at the same time on the same night on two opposite ends of the county. They should be played on the same night on a neutral court so everybody can show up and watch some exciting games.
I’ll give a shoutout to the new Parks and Rec Director Justin Scott (who I think is going to do a fantastic job): Make this happen at Milner Recreation Center. While I have your attention, try to get the old Masonic Christmas tournament going again too.
John Bryan O’Connor said it best on Friday’s broadcast when we were calling the championship games at Charlie Dalton Gym, “A huge crowd on the same night at the same gym – what a novel concept.” Don’t make this complicated elementary schools – just fix it.
Some minor changes to rules/officiating
I still have slip-ups where I may tease an official during games, but for the most part, I know everybody and I think they’re doing their best. There’s no reason for people to pile onto them – rarely does one call effect the outcomes of games (there were only three boys games in 7-8 grade this season that the margin of victory was under 10 points and only one game, an IC-Dibrell Double OT classic, that came down to one possession in the final seconds).
I don’t want to make their job harder, but here are a few rules I’d like for the league to enact and the refs to uphold for 5-6 grade:
No press in the preseason tournament or the first three weeks of the regular season (when teams should get in half their regular season games).
Change the format of the games from four quarters to two 20-minute halves with running clocks until the final two minutes (for season and tournament).
No free throws for non-shooting fouls until the final two minutes of each half.
(I’d prefer if teams were forced to play man-to-man defense for at least the first three weeks of the regular season as well, but I don’t think officials could enforce that during action. That would be a request for all coaches)
As for 7-8 grade, I’d only want a change to the mercy rule. It should be a running clock after halftime in any game where a team takes a 30-point lead and it should drop to 20 points for the fourth quarter.
Finally, any Scott Moore charge signal should be reviewed and replayed over and over.
Giving up on county unification
I’ve spent many years trying to get our county to figure out a way to get all our top kids together before high school, hoping that the added chemistry of learning together would lead to more successful teams at WCHS. I even had a podcast with coach Chris Sullens and Irving College coach John Bryan O’Connor about it right before basketball season – one that created a lot of noise, but gained little traction once people realized what would have to happen to make the dream come true.
Here are 5 reasons why I’m giving up on it:
1. It’s never going to get the necessary support at the highest level needed to get it done. I always thought it would just take one kid from the county to show up at WCMS tryouts to get the ball rolling, but I’ve come to find out that really isn’t the case. Despite county kids being able to go to WCMS and play EVERY other sport, they can’t do it in basketball. Our co-op program, filed with the TMSAA, won’t work that way because we didn’t start out that way.
Now that the TMSAA is involved, it’s just another hurdle to jump. It may take a legal change of residence now for a kid to even get approved to play at WCMS even if they enroll (much less stay at their current school and try to play for WCMS). I’ve seen good hardship cases get shot down by the state, so I’d be dubious if the TMSAA would allow many kids to make that move in our county now.
2. Before you even could file for state approval of a player – especially if they’re going to stay at their county school and play for the Pioneers – you’d need the WC school board to take on the issue and make changes to the county programs. Most likely, it would take our board changing our county teams into “clubs” (and even that tricky paperwork may not fly with the TMSAA anymore) to allow kids to play on a county team like they do in EVERY OTHER SPORT. I think that proposal would be DOA with the current board, especially when those members would have to go to their communities and tell them they could be losing their best players on a yearly basis (even if the county competition didn’t change).
3. Take another step down – do you think county principals are going to support this idea? I highly doubt it. Our county basketball teams are huge draws for their respective schools and they’re going to want to have their best kids wearing their colors. Even if every coach in the system supported it, I don’t know if they could sway their principals to get on board with the plan.
4. Who is going to coach these county teams? If kids are going to play for WCMS – a member of the Central Tennessee Conference and the lone county team that can advance in the TMSAA postseason - it would stand to reason the current WCMS coaches (Mendy Stotts and Kevin Burnett) would lead a county team. I stay in contact with every single program in the county at every level and talk to all the coaches and plenty of the parents and fans. I’ll tell you this – there is no consensus that they feel like the current WCMS coaches are the right people to lead those teams.
My opinion has always been the same for the feeder programs in Warren County: the current WCHS coaches should have final say on who leads those teams. I’ve been banging that drum for a decade and it’s rarely been the case that the WCHS coach is considered when a middle school coach is hired (I don’t know if any have ever been consulted). Most of the time, it doesn’t matter. When there is an adversarial relationship between the WCHS coach and the WCMS coach though, it usually is ugly behind the scenes.
Until there’s full cohesion between WCMS and WCHS, I don’t think you’re getting much cooperation between county teams and WCMS.
5. The Lady Pioneers are making the case that it doesn’t matter where you come from as long as you work hard and buy into team basketball by the time you arrive at WCHS. The starting lineup for the first Lady Pioneers team to top 20 wins in 23 years features two players from WCMS (Sable Winfree and Kyra Perkins), one from Eastside (Shelby Smartt), one from Irving College (Mia Hobbs) and one from Centertown (Jaden Smartt). Their super sub, Brienne Kelsey, went to Morrison.
The Pioneers made the reverse argument the past two years (when the back-to-back district championships and substate qualifiers had starting lineups full of WCMS players and a transcendent point guard from Blackman). Right now though, that feels like a shakier pipeline with kids heading to out-of-county schools after leaving WCMS.
At this point, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best thing for the county to do is try to reestablish the Warren County Elite program (or whatever it was called four years ago). It would take flip-flopping the schedules back to where the 7-8 grade play first, but when they complete their season around Thanksgiving, they could form an all-star team that played in a few holiday tournaments and practiced together for 1-2 months (they could probably get some extra games scheduled with surrounding counties as well).
Let the high school coaches pick the leaders of the program (whether it’s a current elementary coach or somebody in the coaching pipeline) and give them a chance to start building together before high school. At the very least, it would mean we would only have two groups bonding by the time they entered high school instead of six. Also, it would expose some of our county kids to talent outside of our borders.
If none of this can happen – and decades of history says it can’t – then we’re just going to have to hope for a good AAU program to emerge in the county and go from there. Even that is problematic considering you’d be putting kids on the hardwood in the summer when football and baseball coaches would probably like them outside, but I don’t know what else to do right now.
I may retire if I ever get us close to county unification in basketball. There will be no more work left for me to do.