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!
This week, we have honored the best moments, best coaches and best under-the-radar athletes in Warren County. Today, we’ll bring the week to a close with the best freshmen. Because of the holiday weekend, and our commitment to covering the Spring Fling, we’ll be coming back the rest of the Simmons Superlatives starting Tuesday, June 1 and finishing June 3 (Best Athlete, Best Senior, Best Team).
Now, on to the freshmen list:
1. Lauren Slatton, WCHS golf
In the 11 years I’ve been writing sports in Warren County, I can probably count on one hand when we’ve had individual state qualifiers in three different sports. This year, that happened and two of those top qualifiers happened to be Lady Pioneer freshmen.
Really, how do you pick between Lauren Slatton and Ella Van Vranken? There isn’t a wrong choice. Both were instantly dominant in their respective sports, with Slatton claiming wins on golf courses all across Tennessee and VanVranken immediately breaking a pair of school records.
If there was one thing that helped me break this tie, it was Slatton’s string of postseason victories. She didn’t just qualify for the state tournament, where she ultimately finished 12th, she won her way there.
In her first year playing high school golf, Slatton has already been named a district and region champ. The second may have been her most impressive win of the season (and there were a lot of them). Going toe-to-toe against one of the best female golfers in the state at her house, Slatton was still able to come out on top.
The freshman was able to take down Hannah Nall in Cleveland on a soggy day. Even better, Slatton did it by showing nerves of steel. She sank a birdie putt on a second playoff hole to cap the region championship on a day where Nall shot her best career score on her home course.
If I had to make a wager on any individual or team to win a state championship in the next five years for Warren County, it would be Slatton taking home top honors in golf. She’s that good already and I think she’s only going to get better as she gets older.
Also, she’s super nice. I rarely get letters of appreciation (though pats on the back are fairly regular), so it was surprising to open the mailbox around Christmas this winter and see a nice Seasons Greetings from Slatton. She wanted to thank me for the coverage – somewhere in there, she also said we should play a round of golf sometime.
I’m all for covering Slatton’s career in Warren County (and beyond), but I don’t know if I’m ready to get embarrassed on the course just yet. Maybe if we agreed to have her play from the tips and I get the red tees, she would only beat me by 10 strokes (on each side).
2. Ella VanVranken, WCHS track
I’ve rarely had great things to say about DeKalb County over the years considering the Tiger-Pioneer rivalry, but here’s a rare ‘Thank You’ sent to Smithville. I speak for everybody in Warren County when I say Ella VanVranken looked right at home running in the red, white and blue this spring.
VanVranken’s route to representing Warren County may have been different (DeKalb County doesn’t have a track program, so she was able to co-op with WC), but I’m glad it happened. It’s been a pleasure covering such a great track star.
Every winter, I walk into Charlie Dalton Gym 100s of times to cover basketball games. At least once a year, I’ll get caught in the lobby looking at the big record board for WCHS track stars. I usually try to spot the names of people I either covered (there aren’t many) or people I went to school with back at the start of this century.
Next year, I’ll have a new name of the board that I’ll recognize. It will be VanVranken’s – and they may as well put her times and years up with something that can be removed easily because she’s going to keep breaking her own best times.
I’ve had the idea all spring that I’d like to reach out to the former record holders in the 800 (Lorien Young, 1997) and 1,600 (Jamie Caten, 1996) and ask them a few questions. First, I’d want to know if they thought when they set records back in the late 1990s, they would still be standing by 2021? I’d also love to hear their stories about running for Warren County.
But, at some point I would have to ask them, how does it feel to have your records shattered? VanVranken didn’t just shave off a fraction of a second in the events, she completely demolished them.
She topped the 1,600 record several times this season, ultimately leaving the new mark at 5:15.50 (It was 5:48 for over two decades). The same can be said for the 800, which VanVranken set again Thursday at the state tournament with a time of 2:21.93 (2:33.5 was the mark coming into the year).
VanVranken missed the podium Thursday in both events, but something tells me she’s going to be climbing it in the near future.
3. Sable Winfree, WCHS basketball
It says something about how talented this year’s freshmen females were that the District 6AAA freshman of the year ranks third on this list. Sable Winfree had a sensational season for the Lady Pioneers on the hardwood, becoming one of the driving forces behind Warren County going from a two-win season in 2019-20 to 12 wins and the region tournament last winter.
Winfree didn’t take long to announce her presence at the high school level. She was in the starting lineup in the team’s very first game and led the team in scoring that night. Something tells me, barring an injury, she’s going to be the starting PG for the Lady Pioneers for over 100 games in her career.
I gave Sable a hard time a few times last season because she’s always going to go right, but I think she has the perfect rebuttal. If you can’t stop her best move, then why bother going to something else? She’s one of the fastest guard I’ve ever seen suit up for the Lady Pioneers – she can be a blur with the ball in her hands.
She dabbled with showcasing that speed with the track team this spring as well, though she didn’t compete in the majority of events. I’d go out on a limb and say if she wanted, Winfree could be a three-sport star (she was the Central Tennessee Conference soccer MVP as an eighth grader).
You can’t teach the speed Sable possesses. Luckily, the things you can teach her she absorbs like a sponge and applies on the court. She’s going to be really good for the next three years.
4. Carmen Verdel, WCHS soccer
Speaking of freshmen who can be star soccer players, Carmen Verdel is already well on her way. Despite joining what was already a pretty loaded roster, Verdel worked her way into the lineup and was a big help in securing a District 6AAA regular season championship.
Verdel is a natural scorer who knows how to be in the right place at the right time. She plays really well off the team’s two stars – Katie Toney and Bekah Jackson – and is going to help continue the long run of success the WCHS soccer team has had over the last decade.
5. Cadee Griffith, WCHS track
In all the excitement about the WCHS track team and all the individual records being broken, Cadee Griffith’s contributions may have slipped through the cracks a little bit. Griffith also has the claim of being a state qualifier as she was one leg of an impressive 4x800 Lady Pioneer relay team.
Griffith paired with VanVranken, Toney and Emma Randall to form a fierce foursome that should be in contention for another state bid next spring. They’ll have to replace Toney after 2022, but Griffith and VanVranken are a great core to build around for the next three years.