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Simmons Superlatives - Best Athlete

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. Katie Toney, WCHS soccer/track

As I mentioned in the boys story, 2020-21 was an incredible year for Warren County sports. It featured some of the best teams I’ve ever seen and some of the top individual performances in school history. When thinking about my decade-plus of covering sports, it can be hard to pinpoint the best I’ve covered in each individual sport. There are a select few who stand out at the top, but usually I think it’s a big deal if you can just “make the list.”

When it comes to girls soccer, junior Katie Toney has already made that list. If she keeps up her pace, she’s probably going to move into the “select few” category next year.

With apologies to Morgan McCormick and our dear friend and the best sideline reporter around Ansley Mullican, Toney is working on assembling the best career by any Lady Pioneer soccer player I’ve seen – and maybe just the best one ever, period. She is likely to crack 100 career goals next year and she’s going to be on the short list of top assists at the school as well.

More so, she’s piling up accolades that almost nobody can match. Toney has already been named District 6AAA MVP twice, along with co-Region 3AAA MVP as a sophomore (If the voting between district was even, I’d suspect she would have been co-Region MVP twice already, but the district Warren County rivals – 5AAA – has more teams). She’s also been named all-state twice and will have a chance to match McCormick as a three-time honoree this fall.

How Toney does what she does is what impresses me the most. You didn’t have to watch warmups for more than two minutes to know Ansley had a huge leg and could score once she crossed midfield and McCormick possessed a rare blend of size and speed that made her a matchup nightmare.

Toney is a physical marvel in her own right, but I don’t think she would be the person opponents would circle in pregame warmups if they didn’t already know the resume. Toney’s best trait – to me – is the 80 minutes of relentlessness and stamina. She looks like she’s playing as hard and as fast in the 80th minute as she is from the first minute. I’ve long referred to her as the Energizer Bunny – even though I think many kids now don’t even remember those commercials.

It should be noted – when I say she’s fast at all times, it should be clarified that she is track fast at all times. Toney can absolutely scoot.

She showed she had some of the best speed in the area this spring when she set the school’s record in the 400-meter dash and competed in the TSSAA state tournament running a leg in the 4x800 race. She’s probably in the top five in fastest sprinters I’ve covered at WCHS (quick sidebar: I’m going with Toney, Hailey Wood, Madison Smartt, Lauren Wilkinson and current Lady Pioneer Bailey Bundy on that list, with Bundy at the top).

Toney possesses something that I always saw in my favorite athlete growing up, Tim Duncan. She’s a clear-cut leader who doesn’t have to be talkative, she just sets an example and everybody follows. She’s not out there doing the things she does to get personal attention (she usually does her best to deflect it by passing up goals to teammates), she just wants to play as hard as she can, win the game and go home. The next time out, she’ll work to be a little better, tire out another team and hopefully win again.

There are few who can match her talents. Hopefully by the end of this year, there will be few who can say they’ve won as much as her in Warren County too.

2. Madison Hollis, WCHS softball

In terms of having the ability to completely dominate a team game in all facets, I’d say the rankings at Warren County this year would be: 1. CJ Taylor and 2. Madison Hollis. Hollis was an absolute beast this year on the diamond for the Lady Pioneers – and I think she did a lot of it while not being truly 100 percent.

There was a fear for some time before the season that we wouldn’t get to see Hollis pitch much, or at all, this season. A shoulder injury had been discovered late last fall and her rehab was going to push right up to the start of the season. There was hope she may be able to be at her best by the end of the year, but Hollis beat those expectations – much to the dismay of District 6AAA.

If I could sum up Hollis’ season in one 24-hour stretch, it would be back-to-back nights against Rockvale and Stone Memorial. Hollis helped the Lady Pioneers pick up a 2-1 win on the road against the Lady Rockets, throwing a four-hit gem where she struck out 11 batters.

Less than 24 hours later, she threw a no-hitter at home against Stone Memorial. The game didn’t get past four innings because Hollis enacted the run rule by hitting a grand slam to end it in the fourth. I missed seeing the home run by mere minutes, but from everybody I talked, it was cranked deep to left center and easily cleared the 220-foot fences.

As somebody said, “It was still going up when it hit the light pole. And it was hit so hard, it ricocheted back into play and rolled all the way to the infield.”

I watched one practice where Hollis hit seven consecutive home runs in warmups. None of them barely cleared either – they were all towering shots that cleared the trees behind the left-field fence.

It was a real letdown to see Hollis’ shoulder issues creep back up during the district tournament, especially a day after she threw an absolute gem against Rhea County in a heartbreaking 1-0 loss. I’ve talked to Madison since then and she says she thinks she’s going to be fine, so that was a relief.

It is to me anyway – the teams who are set to play Warren County next year may not want to hear it though. It’s rare to have a player get 10 strikeouts and hit two home runs in the same game. The Lady Pioneers have one – make sure to go see her next spring.

3. Lauren Slatton, WCHS golf

4. Ella VanVranken, WCHS track

While I said that I wouldn’t list any senior from the best athlete list on tomorrow’s best senior lists, I couldn’t rank the top five female athletes from this year without Slatton and VanVranken. Both freshmen were covered extensively in last weeks’ Simmons Superlative for the best freshmen.

CLICK HERE to read that story.

Wow, maybe my job will be a lot easier doing this next year. All of the top four will be back again!

5. Sadie Simmons, WCHS volleyball/softball

Alas, Sadie Simmons won’t be. And that’s a shame – she is going to be missed on the volleyball court and on the diamond.

One of the things that really impressed me about Sadie through the years is how hard she worked to become an all-district performer in both sports. Usually, when I see a two-sport star as a senior, they’ve usually broken through as a starter at a young age in at least one sport. For Sadie, it wasn’t until this year that she became a full-time starter in softball (she may have been last year, but the season was cancelled) and her role just steadily increased in volleyball.

You’ll often hear coaches say to kids, “Give me a reason to play you. Make it hard for me to leave you off the lineup.” I think of Sadie when I hear that. She’s always going to be working hard and doing all the little things to help winning. Sometimes, that even means moving to other positions to fill holes.

Simmons developed into a solid first basemen this season, though I think her natural position has always been pitcher. For volleyball, she played everywhere, including being one of the team’s setters.

Sadie is the first Simmons to win a Simmons’ Superlative, but don’t call it bias. Unless my grandma wants to correct me, I don’t think we’re related. But even if we were, I’d still have Sadie on the list. She deserves it.

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