As we officially close down the 2020-21 school year this week, 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!
Today, it’s time to talk about the best coaches this season!
1. Matt Turner, WCHS football
Of all the categories we’re going to get to this week for both boys and girls high school sports, this was easily the most difficult decision I had. Honestly, I could’ve listed a top 10 and any of the top 5-6 could’ve came in with the top spot. But last week I promised I wouldn’t have any ties and I would pick outright winners, even if it meant bringing some heat.
So, what pushed Matt Turner to the top? For me, it was the historic weight of the Pioneer football season and the tone it set for the rest of the school year. Turner and the Pioneers were looking to break free from 30 years of losing and change the perception of the entire program. In the span of three months, Turner put Warren County on the map.
I will always think that the Warren County Sports Authority is more than enough for coverage because I’m going to be there through thick and thin – I have been for over a decade now. But even I was amazed at how the Pioneers were pushed out on a state level this fall – whether it was CJ Taylor winning Mr. Football, the Pioneers and Oakland game being the Titans game of the week or Fright Night Lights choosing Warren County’s playoff game as its game of the week.
Three seasons ago, I thought Warren County was about to fold its football program. It had been so bad for so long, there didn’t seem to be any hope left. Kids didn’t want to play and they definitely didn’t want to get pounded in the dirt by Murfreesboro schools.
Turner took over and changed everything in quick order, making it cool to be a Pioneer again and showing that Warren County had more than enough fight to take on Rutherford County schools. Even with that flip, I still don’t think anybody saw this coming last fall.
Optimistically, I went into the season thinking Warren County would finish with at least six wins, snapping the 30-year streak of losing seasons in the process. I didn’t think the Pioneers would go to Blackman and win – much less build a 21-point, first half lead – and I was doubtful that they could sweep Rockvale and Siegel on the road after barely beating the duo at home the year before.
I did think Warren County would beat Cookeville on homecoming, but I didn’t think it would be a dominating shutout. And I never would’ve dreamed the Pioneers would have the ball down one score in the fourth quarter against Oakland, the eventual 15-0 state champions.
For all those things, I think Matt Turner has to be celebrated. I sent out a message earlier this week that I was semi-joking, semi-serious about saying, “12 wins and 200 kids – how Matt Turner turned around Pioneer and Pioneer Youth League football and became a sure-fire Hall of Famer.”
The more I think about it, the less I think it’s a joke. If Turner can put together a few more winning seasons – at the very least, get over the 20-win plateau – then I think it’s a lock. Adding the football success with his wrestling background (both as a coach and Pioneer in the 1990s) and the work he’s currently doing with the youth will easily make him a Warren County legend.
Congrats coach – Sorry I was pushing for Michael Thrower to get the job before you back in 2019. To be fair, he is a NAIA champion now, so I wasn’t totally wrong.
2. Phillip King, WCHS baseball
When Trice Powers waited until the very last minute to abandon Warren County in the summer of 2019, the Pioneers were left to scramble for a coach during a time when almost every position was filled across the state. Hiring just before school starts in the fall is brutal, especially when you’re trying to find somebody who can be a teacher as well.
Luckily, the perfect candidate was just sitting there waiting for the Pioneers. Phillip King deserves a huge amount of credit for how quickly he’s been able to push the Pioneers back in the forefront on the diamond, particularly after surviving a mess in his first year.
King wasn’t able to pick a roster until February of his first season, meaning all offseason workouts other teams were doing to build a core weren’t available for the Pioneers. Even when King was able to assemble a lineup that most people (including me) could push for a region title, his debut lasted a handful of games before COVID shut down all spring sports.
With all King went through in his first year at Warren County (late hire, no roster until the spring, a cancelled season, not being able to have a senior night for his son) could’ve gotten anybody down. King didn’t lament what he lost, he just went to work to build back a once proud program.
The Pioneers won 20 games in the regular season for just the second time in over 20 years this season and brought home a District 6AAA season title. King and the Pioneers also did major work in giving Patrick Ramsey Field a facelift and welcomed back so many important past Pioneers this spring.
Kudos to King – he even had me really fired up about baseball for the first time since I was 13.
3. Chris Sullens, WCHS basketball
Coach Sullens may be a victim of his own success. After all, his Pioneers did things on the hardwood this year that haven’t been seen for almost 40 years, yet he’s down here at No. 3 in the best coach rankings. I think the biggest reason why I pushed him down the list is because I expect his Pioneers to be really good at this point – he’s made it to where they’re going to compete night-in and night-out against anybody.
Back-to-back district titles shouldn’t be overlooked though, especially when Warren County wasn’t favored to win either. People may have forgotten, but it was White County – with Ole Miss signee Grant Slatten – that was picked to win District 6AAA this year.
Instead, the Pioneers dominated the Warriors in the district championship game, with seniors CJ Taylor and tournament MVP Dee Spates putting on a show. From there, Warren County was able to beat McMinn County in the region quarterfinals at home (just the second region game held at Charlie Dalton Gym ever), then beat East Hamilton in a game nobody around here will forget anytime soon.
While pushing the Pioneers to their first sectional appearance since the early 1980s, Sullens also picked up his 100th win at Warren County. I’m hoping he sticks around long enough to get 200 – at the pace he’s set the last few years, it shouldn’t take too long.
4. Ryan Smith, Covenant basketball
Speaking of somebody who deserves recognition for the totality of their hard work, I’d be remiss if I didn’t have Ryan Smith on the list.
Smith has plugged along for years with the Lions, knowing if a group he’s helped develop since they were kids held together, something special could happen. It did this winter as Covenant toppled every team in its path on the way to a TNCAA championship.
The senior group that Smith has cultivated for the better part of a decade hit its crescendo this year. In a lot of ways, they reminded me of one of my favorite NBA teams – the 2014 Spurs. Nobody was going to mistake the Lions as the biggest, strongest or most athletic group, but they always had five guys on the court who knew exactly what to do and when to do it.
They were tied together on a string on both ends, cutting at the perfect time, popping to free spots for open 3s and recovering defensively to close holes before they could spring open.
None of that happens without a leader in place making the right decisions. Smith loved saying this season that he didn’t have to do a lot of coaching during games because his players knew what he expected, but his years of hard work going into this season allowed him to sit back and enjoy the spoils of success.
5. David Dunlap, WCHS tennis
District championships and David Dunlap are synonymous on the tennis court. The moment I realized Dunlap was back coaching Warren County, I knew the Pioneers would be pretty good. He’s always had a way of developing top tennis talent.
This year, he helped guide Alessandro Prando to a District 6AAA title. Prando was also the Region 3AAA runner-up, narrowly missing a chance to compete for a state bid.
Now some would say that Dunlap got lucky that Prando, an Italian exchange student that attends Grundy County, fell in his lap this season. My rebuttal would be this – I don’t know if Prando ends up co-oping with Warren County if Dunlap isn’t around.
They had a chance encounter at the courts back in the fall, sparking the connection that led Prando to the Pioneers. If Dunlap wasn’t there, then maybe Prando never suits up locally. But because Dunlap is always around – and has a great reputation in the tennis community – we have another district champion to honor.
Three years ago, Dunlap also helped found the Covenant tennis program, which won TNCAA championships this year. I’m not going to give him credit for the Lions’ success – that goes to coach Netherton – but he gets an assist for getting the ball rolling.
Extra credit: Johnny Smith, Covenant soccer
I wanted to make sure I mentioned Johnny Smith, who guided the Covenant Lions to a TNCAA championship this spring. Because I decided to separate the Simmons Superlatives by boys and girls sports, I didn’t really leave any room to honor Smith and the Lions, who play co-ed at the high school level.
That being said, Smith should be praised for his work with the Lions and Lady Lions this season – his “babies” as he calls them really made the school proud.
Sorry Matt Jackson (WCHS soccer), Chris Perry (Boyd basketball) and Patty Kelly (WCHS track) – it was a tough field.