As we officially close down the 2020-21 school year, WCSA editor-in-chief Jeffery Simmons wanted to go back and hand out his final awards for the year. Simmons has been picking the defining athletes, teams and moments in high school sports for years, but this will be the first on our new website.
Welcome to the Simmons Superlatives!
Last week, we have honored the best moments, best coaches, best under-the-radar athletes and best freshmen in Warren County. This week, we’ll bring the Simmons’ Superlatives a close with the best athletes, best seniors and best teams.
Today, I’m going big with the best athletes of the 2020-21 school year. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say this is the best collection of athletes I’ve ever covered in Warren County. Every season and every school had memorable kids, many of which could be considered the best ever (either now, or by the time they’re done).
Before I get to my top 5, I want to mention that I made it up in my mind that if there was a senior on the best athlete list, I was going to exclude them from my best seniors (running Wednesday, June 2). I felt like, at the end of the day, I wanted my sure-five top five listed as best athletes.
OK, now on to the list:
1. CJ Taylor, WCHS football/basketball
When CJ hit a buzzer beater to win the 2020 District 6AAA title in Sparta, I remember writing a couple days later about how – as a junior – he probably had already accomplished enough to be a Warren County sports Hall of Famer. I said then if they should just vote him in because we didn’t need to see another year of his stardom to verify it.
Just a few weeks later, COVID shut down all sports and there was a time when we didn’t know if this Class of 2021 would get to play again. I can say it now – I was right about CJ not needing any more verification, but I was wrong about not needing to see anymore. We may have just witnessed the best eight-month run of performances by a Pioneer ever. He could be the GOAT.
From his very first touch this school year, CJ made everything special. On that rainy night in Smithville, Taylor broke a touchdown run on the very first play. He didn’t stop electrifying fans until he hung up his Pioneer jersey for a final time back in March.
For years, it felt like Pioneer football was in purgatory. There were a few years where it wasn’t a total loss, but for 30 years it just felt like a reoccurring nightmare. Until the last two years, I thought the most memorable play I had covered came in 2014 against Stone Memorial.
That night, Warren County was lining up for a game-winning field goal against the Panthers with less than :10 to play. The game was tied, but the chip shot was supposed to give the Pioneers a victory. Instead, Stone Memorial blocked the kick and ran it back 90 yards for a game-winning TD.
It felt like the synopsis of the football program for 30 years – always finding a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Now when I think of the defining moments of covering football, I can pick from a number of highlights. Almost all of them involve CJ.
Maybe it’s the TD against DeKalb County on the first play (or the interception later in the game, or him laying out Smithville’s QB with a vicious hit). What about his two TDs in two touches against Cannon County (or the three fumbles he forced)? Could it be the 80-yard sprint against Blackman to put the Pioneers up 21 or his defiant sprint against Oakland on senior night, one capped by Taylor slamming the football on the ground in the endzone after bursting through a state-championship defense?
I’m always going to be partial to his final carry, even if it came ultimately in defeat. Taylor was already getting plenty of Mr. Football buzz (deservedly so) after leading the Pioneers to a top-10 ranking and a playoff spot. It was only amplified when the Pioneers’ game against Mt. Juliet in the first round was picked to be broadcast across the state.
Everybody in attendance, and all those watching at home, knew CJ was going to have the ball in his hands when the Pioneers needed a play the most. He delivered in the final five minutes, busting out for a 74-yard TD on his final carry that also pushed him to 3,000 career yards.
I talked a lot about his defining moment on the basketball court already, so I won’t go into too much more detail about his hardwood legacy. Just know that the Pioneers don’t win back-to-back district titles without him – a 1,000 point scorer – or make it to sectionals for the first time in nearly 40 years without him.
He’s Mr. Football. He’s Mr. Clutch. He’s my choice for the Greatest Of All Time athlete in Warren County High School history.
2. Kason Holder, WCHS football/baseball
Just imagine what it took to keep a Region 3-6A MVP winner, a Chattanooga Classic MVP, all-state selection (football) and all-district performer (baseball) from being top athlete in a given year. In almost any other year that I’ve been doing this, Kason Holder’s resume would be bulletproof. I’d hand him the award.
Kason is going to be just as hard to replace next year for both the football and baseball programs. He could do it all – playing both sides on the gridiron and showing plenty of ability with the bat and glove on the diamond. During football season, Holder was so impressive that Region 3-6A coaches voted him the Defensive Back MVP, a fitting award considering Holder was one of the top Pioneers in tackles, sacks, interceptions and fumbles forced and recovered.
Holder was also a factor offensively for the Pioneers, finishing second in total yards and touchdowns. His ability to get it done on the ground or in the air (including a game-winning TD catch in the final minute at Rockvale) made Warren County much more than just a one-trick pony.
His versatility may have been even more impressive for coach Phillip King. He went into his senior season with hopes of being the team’s ace – a top-flight starter who would have the ball in his hand when it mattered most. After a few other players emerged on the bump, Holder made a quick pivot.
By the end of the year, he was the team’s starting centerfielder (saving a bunch of runs in their eventual season-ending loss in the region tournament) and was one of the best hitters on the team.
I have huge hopes for Holder as he continues his athletic career at Sewanee. Maybe he’ll even suit up in both sports for the Tigers. He definitely has the ability.
3. John Jackson, WCHS soccer
If you’re going to make the best athlete list and only play one sport, you better be one of the best in the state to do it. Fortunately, John Jackson can make that claim.
The local soccer prodigy was amazing as a senior, scoring nearly at will while leading the Pioneers to the region tournament. His ability to score, especially on free kicks, was incredible. Other opponents knew he was the guy to stop, but few had the ability to do it. By the end of the year, it seemed like opponents conceded Jackson was going to score, they just hoped to outscore the Pioneer star.
I’ve known all the Jacksons for a long time and I definitely knew about their ability on the soccer field. Still, it was stunning to see the ease at which Jackson was able to score this year. He just has a knack for putting the ball inches out of reach of the keepers’ hands, but also inches in from hitting a post. Sometimes, he didn’t miss the keepers’ hands – he just blasted the ball right through them.
District 6AAA coaches seemed to feel the same way as they voted Jackson the MVP this season. I don’t think there was a close second.
4. Ike Gillentine, WCHS wrestling/angler
Talk about a guy who can persevere. Ike Gillentine was the personification of finding a way to come back bigger, stronger and better from setbacks. The Pioneer senior wrestler wasn’t going to quit until he was standing on a podium at the state tournament.
After two years of near misses, Gillentine finally got his moment of glory back in February. He was able to wrestle his way to a medal, which included a comeback in the third round of one final matches. Gillentine told me later that in that match, he just knew that he had to keep coming forward and get the job done. There was no way he was going to lose – not as a senior, not with a medal on the line.
Gillentine is a guy I’d want to have in the heat of battle when there’s something on the line. That includes a big bass. He was one of the top anglers for Warren County this year as well, helping the school win a region award for being the best fishing team in the area.
5. Alessandro Prando, WCHS tennis
After I covered the WCHS tennis team for the first time this year, I left the court and called a friend. The first thing I told them was, “If Alessandro Prando was in Warren County for more than just this season, he’d become the most popular Pioneer at the school.”
I’ll admit that tennis have never been a sport I’ve gravitated to much. The general rule for me is that I’m usually bond to hang around sports to cover that I played growing up – I probably picked up a tennis racket 2-3 times before I turned 25. Even now, I don’t think I’ve ever played more than one full game – and that was just goofing around with my brother one night.
When I do follow tennis, it’s because there’s a captivating star or great rivalry on the court. I liked watching Agassi vs. Sampras as a kid. I loved seeing old highlights of John McEnroe yell at officials. It was really fun to see the Williams’ sisters face off in the finals of majors.
Prando likely isn’t going to get to that level of superstardom, but he brought some of that same flare to the court this year. When he played, there was a definite buzz around the court. I talked to some of the people he played against this year and they all talked about how he was one of their favorite players to take on. Others just liked calling him the “Italian Stallion,” a nickname I don’t know if he would like or not.
The most memorable thing he’ll leave behind in Warren County is a District 6AAA championship. While all the off-the-court stuff made for good stories – seriously, Prando is a great interview and one of the most fun athletes to talk to – the true focus at the end of the day was that he’s one of the best tennis players to suit up for the Pioneers in a decade.