Simmons Superlatives - Best Senior
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. Yesterday was the best athletes and today is the top seniors. Just one more category to go after this – the best teams.
On to the list:
1. Rhealee Johnson, WCHS softball
When I went to Sparta way back in 2018, I was hoping the Lady Pioneers could find a way to come back in the District 6AAA tournament and win it. Warren County had the talent and seemed to be clicking at the right time, but a loss to Cookeville in the winner’s bracket meant the Lady Pioneers were going to need to come out of the loser’s bracket.
Once the Lady Pioneers made it to the championship, I kept wondering who coach Gooby Martin was going to throw. Juniors Maddie Cantrell and Ashton Whiles seemed like the logical choices, two veteran arms who had won big district games already and were up for the challenge of pitching in the spotlight.
If I’ve learned anything from standing in the dugout with Gooby over the years, it’s that he’s not going to always do what people expect. He’s going to trust his gut – and he’s usually right.
That night, he handed the ball over a freshman fireballer who had been gaining steam down the stretch. He decided if the Lady Pioneers needed a couple of huge wins, why not trust Rhealee Johnson to do it.
She helped deliver two emphatic wins for Warren County, pitching five innings over the course of 15-9 and 17-2 victories that secured the program’s first district tournament championship. She also had four hits in the two games, cementing her spot in the order for the next three years.
Johnson didn’t have to throw much over the next three years (Madison Hollis, one of the top athletes on yesterday’s list, has handled that), but I was always amazed by how unfazed Johnson looked in the moment. She was quiet and confident, ready to take on all comers from the first time she stepped on the field as a varsity starter.
She carried that kind of simmering fierceness for four years, something I always noticed and respected. In her second-to-last game, I’ll never forget when Rhealee came into the dugout after Rhea County had pitched around her in the late innings.
She tore off her helmet with disgust and was talking angrily to herself about being walked again. I stood off to the side, thinking to myself that she had to know it was coming. I mean, it was a 1-0 game and Rhealee – the district’s Co-Offensive MVP – could easily change the game with one swing. I wouldn’t pitch to her in those situations – Heck, I’d be careful pitching to here in ALL situations.
In her final game, Rhealee finished 3-for-3 and ripped a double in the seventh inning when Warren County was trying to make a desperate comeback. She cruised into second and sending the ball to the fence and stood on the base defiantly, probably a bit angry she only got it to the fence instead of over it.
She was the same determined young lady as she was back in 2018 when she first entered my radar. Rhealee wanted the ball with the game on the line – she couldn’t wait to deliver.
2. Madisen Madewell, Covenant volleyball basketball and soccer
It’s hard for any young sibling to follow in the footsteps of their older brothers or sisters when it comes to sports. The level of difficulty just multiplies if their parents were stars too. That’s something I thought about a lot this year when I watched Madisen Madewell compete for Covenant.
First, there is no way she didn’t hear constant comparisons to her sister Emma Grace Madewell, who happened to be one of the best Lady Lions to ever suit up for the school. If she wasn’t hearing about that, then I’m sure a couple people would remind her that coach Chris Madewell – better known to Madisen as dad – was a sports standout too.
Like many kids at Covenant, Madisen was playing up at the varsity level at an early age. During those years, the growing pains are evident – only most young kids wouldn’t have a spotlight on them because you expect freshmen to have their ups and downs.
When your name is Madewell and you play for Covenant though, there isn’t much slack. I’ll say this though, if Madisen had to walk a tight rope to become a Lady Lion star, she never showed any stress doing it.
I’d have a hard time thinking of somebody who seemed to be having more fun playing sports this year than Madisen. Whether it was during title seasons in volleyball and soccer or while she was trying to guide the Lady Lions to wins on the hardwood, Madewell always looked happy and was encouraging her teammates. When I talked to her after games, she was happy-go-lucky and always positive about her team.
Her family was always there supporting her too. Her dad (and coach) seemed to really enjoy leading his daughter onto the court and I know I saw Emma come back a few times to see her sister play as well.
Maybe it isn’t so tough being the younger sibling. Madisen made carrying on the family legacy look pretty easy this year.
3. Elia Atterson, WCHS softball
Everything I said about Rhealee Johnson stepping in during the district tournament as a freshmen could also be said about Elia Atterson. If anything, Elia did it with even less experience than her classmate.
Elia was a talked about talent from the time she stepped on the diamond for the Lady Pioneers as a freshman, but several talented upperclassmen stood in her way to a permanent role on the varsity team. By the time the tournament rolled around though, coach Gooby Martin felt like it was time to unleash Atterson.
In the team’s most pivotal win of the year, a 17-2 thrashing of Cookeville in the tournament finals, Elia delivered a pair of doubles off the fence from her No. 9 spot in the order. You could see the astonished looks from the Cookeville coaches, wondering how in the world the potent Lady Pioneer lineup had somehow gotten better by the postseason.
From there, Elia was a staple in the lineup, earning all-district accolades in the process. This year, I saw her step out of her comfort zone at the start of the year and try her best at second base before shifting back to her familiar role in centerfield by the end of the season.
In those few games at second base, Elia’s effort was still evident. She made a great diving catch against Coffee County – the same squad that ultimately finished second in the state – in the first home game of the year.
By the end of the season, she was dropping bombs and ripping the cover off the ball while helping the Lady Pioneers secure a district championship. I’m still shocked no college has made her an offer she can’t refuse to get her suited back up next year.
Maybe Elia is just ready for the next chapter in her life. I hope it’s as good as the one she just wrote on the diamond for Warren County.
4. Syd Durham, Boyd volleyball/b’ball
One of the most determined glares on Warren County courts this school year usually stays hidden most days behind a pair of glasses. Still, there was no denying when you see the glasses come off, Syd Durham was completely locked in.
Durham was the heart and soul behind the surprising success of the Boyd volleyball team last fall, including the school beating local rival Covenant for the first time ever. Syd was serious enough for everybody, always ready in the moment and directing everybody where to go.
I’m used to seeing kids get really passionate while playing sports, even to point where they’ll let out a huge yell or primal scream after a particularly big play. The only difference this year was I saw it on volleyball courts – I was used to hearing “And-1” really loud at basketball games or the roar of players on the gridiron. Syd brought that same kind of fire to the volleyball court, letting anybody in JK Stanley Gymnasium know when Boyd scored a big point.
From my experience, Syd was usually the one securing them.
5. Samantha Jennings, WCHS volleyball
For years, I’ve joked that Cookeville engineers their volleyball players in labs. I had no idea how they could somehow always have two or three Lady Cavs who were 6-foot-2 and could absolutely crush volleyballs in their sleep. I wanted to know their formula so we could use it in Warren County.
Well, I think the Lady Pioneers got pretty close with Samantha Jennings.
She isn’t over over 6-foot tall (seriously, how Cookeville has that much height 40 miles down the road puzzles me), but Jennings has everything else you could ask for when building a great volleyball player. Samantha was quick feet, soft hands, explosive leaping and – best of all – really takes pleasure in hitting the ball really, really hard.
Jennings has always been one of the most talented Lady Pioneers on the court the last four years, even when she was a freshman. You could tell she was destined to be a star, a player Warren County fans loves and opposing teams feared.
I watched games this year where I could tell Samantha was in the groove and ready to take over. Her hits were vicious, her blocks were perfectly timed and even her play on the back line was much improved. When she was locked in, Warren County had no qualms with riding Jennings to a victory.
She went out with an all-district award and the respect of all those who saw her talents the last four years.