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Simmons Superlatives - Best Team

We have reached the end of the Simmons’ Superlatives. I hope everybody has enjoyed the series, which debuted last week and has featured seven installments (including today’s finale). If our website numbers are any indication, then I feel like they have been well received – last week was one of the top 3 in the site’s history and this week is trending the same way. I really appreciate all the shares and comments!

Now, for our last list: the best high school teams of the 2020-21 season. I’m going to dive more into this at a later date, but I really do feel like this year should be documented for its unprecedented local success. In year’s past, it would’ve been a struggle to honor five teams – now I feel like I’m having to make hard cuts.

I'm posting the boys list late Thursday and will have the girls list out on Friday. Let’s get to it:

1. WCHS football

First winning season in 30 years

It’s the only team on this list without a championship to show for its efforts this year, but something tells me when people talk about 2020-21 sports in a decade, the Pioneer football team will be the first thing mentioned. They brought together an entire community at the perfect time – when they were starving for the outdoors, starving for normalcy and starving for a winner to support.

Warren County has always shown strong support behind the football team, but over the years I noticed that Nunley Stadium was more for social gatherings than to really watch a game. Sure, you’d go and wear your Pioneer colors, but the majority of the crowd was really just using it as something to do on Friday night. Deep down, I don’t think they thought Warren County would win – they just hoped for a few highlights and good conversations with friends.

Last fall was something completely different. I could feel it from the first game when my phone wouldn’t stop ringing about getting tickets in Smithville. People wanted to watch these Pioneers. They knew something special was brewing.

Even now, I’m not sure I completely appreciate everything that happened this fall. It felt like a tsunami in the moment, just a wave getting bigger and stronger as the season went along. It finally came crashing down in the final three weeks, but even those games provided some classic moments.

I’ve said this a lot to people in private, but I don’t think I’ve ever written about it before. I always like to go back to that very first game, because as much as it felt like the Pioneers pretty much cruised through those first eight wins, that night in Smithville could’ve went south.

DeKalb County scored an early touchdown in the second half, cutting Warren County’s lead down to 21-18. The Pioneers marched right back down the field, but a holding penalty negated a touchdown, leaving Warren County to try a field goal.

It feels like small potatoes now, but I remember at the time thinking how pivotal it was for Tony Curtis to sink that 36-yard field goal and give the Pioneers some breathing room. They went on to win 30-24, mostly on the back of an out-of-this-world effort by CJ Taylor (250-plus yards rushing, over 100 yards passing, four TDs, a forced fumble and interception).

From there, the confidence only grew within the Pioneers. Taylor always had the swagger, fueled by his belief that he could go down as Warren County’s G.O.A.T. (he may have), but his teammates started carrying themselves the same way as the wins piled up.

Other programs started seeing it too. Colleges started recruiting the Pioneers harder (the team had seven players sign – so far) and opponents had to dedicate real time to game plan for the matchups. I’ve been told by several people that Oakland – the eventual state champion – was pretty happy to see the Pioneers fall in the playoffs early. I don’t think the Patriots were shaking in their boots at the thought of seeing Warren County again, but I think they weren’t looking forward for another street fight with the Pioneers.

I think that is what people really loved about this group. As talented as it was (and it was super talented, led by Mr. Football), it wasn’t overwhelming when you looked at it from the stands. When I was calling the game for the radio at Rockvale at Week 3, I mistook our team for a middle school team at one point, mostly because you don’t think of an elite high school program trotting out 30-40 kids.

But Matt Turner’s “Dirty 30” were different. They were fighters. They carried a huge chip on their shoulders and played with pride and purpose. This group wanted to be the ones that made Warren County winners again.

Incredible job Pioneers! You did everything you set out to do.

2. WCHS basketball

Back-to-back district titles, sectional berth

There was never a more prophetic quote than when me and Chris Sullens talked after the Mt. Juliet football game. We were lamenting about the loss, how the Pioneers were so close and had fought back so valiantly, only to fall in such heartbreaking fashion.

We both saw the kids crying on the field, with the realization that many of them would never play football again washing overwhelming them in the moment. Sullens and I both knew there were a few of those guys who were still going to be Pioneers though, particularly CJ Taylor. And losing like that was only going to fuel him to fight off the end of his career even more on the hardwood.

Sullens looked at me and said, “I don’t know when it’s going to be, but when his career is on the line and he’s got to fight for his life, CJ is going to do something we’ve never seen before.”

Fast forward to March 2 and it happened. The Pioneers were down 10 points in the fourth quarter of the region semifinals and CJ erupted, carrying Warren County to an improbable win over East Hamilton that secured the school’s first sectional berth in almost 40 years.

I’ll never forget that moment – and I don’t think anybody that was in Charlie Dalton Gym (including the Hurricane fans, coaches and players) will either. I was lucky enough to get to go behind-the-scenes with the team the final two games and it was just a wonderful group, one of the best in the history of the school.

Winning back-to-back district titles was a huge accomplishment, as was winning two region games at home (just the second and third boys region games ever held at Charlie Dalton Gym). Making it to 20 wins – again – was huge. They had some great individual milestones too – CJ surpassed 1,000 points on the same night Sullens picked up his 100th win and Dee Spates was named the district MVP on his home floor.

They played some wild games, including winning in overtime against rival Sparta on a night where Dante Elam hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer in regulation and Taylor came up with a steal and score in the final 10 seconds of overtime. They also played some ironman basketball – most of their starting 5 played nearly every second of the postseason (especially Dee Spates).

If the football team set the bar for what was expected of the Pioneers in 2020-21, the basketball team rose to that same level. They may have even exceeded it.

3. WCHS baseball

District 6AAA regular season title

Those same expectations flowed straight into the spring, where Warren County was expected to have a great season on the diamond. Coach Phillip King’s group didn’t disappoint.

When the Pioneers were at their best, they probably were one of the 15-20 best teams in the state. Sadly, they hit their peak right at the end of April instead of the middle of May, but it shouldn’t diminish what the Pioneers got done.

Warren County rolled off 10 wins in the span of 11 games at one point, including a nine-game winning streak that changed the whole season. The Pioneers were stagnant before the streak, sitting at 8-8 and in the middle of a dog fight in the District 6AAA standings.

When the Cavaliers shocked the Pioneers with a walk-off home run in Cookeville, it sent a shockwave through the team. The fight-or-flight instinct kicked in for the group and they came out swinging, literally.

The Pioneers tore the cover off the ball after that loss in Cookeville, scoring 89 runs in the next nine games (all wins). Even if they hadn’t found such a power surge at the plate, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. The pitching staff, led by Layne Roberts and John Garrett, was in a groove too.

It was fun baseball to watch. The support was second-to-none as well, especially with King bringing back so many of the legends of the program along the way.

If you’ve read my writing for a long time, you already know I’ve always had some bitter feelings around baseball because of when I got cut as a freshman and sophomore. Baseball was always my sport growing up, but after those hard life lessons as a kid, I turned my back on the game.

King and this group brought me back to Patrick Ramsey Field too. I had more fun at baseball games this year than I have had in 20 years.


4. Covenant basketball

Won school's first TNCAA boys b'ball championship

Although it’s plagiarizing my own work, I’ll tell you why I liked the Lions so much this year. It’s because they reminded me of my favorite pro team – the San Antonio Spurs. The Lions turned themselves into champions by building their foundation years ago and adding new wrinkles every season until they morphed into a well-oiled machine on the court.

I have a huge amount of respect for the team and their coach, Ryan Smith. All the kids stuck together over the years, believing one day they were going to be able to hoist trophies and hang banners that haven’t been seen before at Covenant. The group was always focused on that one mission – winning for their school.

It helped that they played a fun brand of basketball too. With Terry Hines at the controls, Covenant flew up and down the court, looking to always get the best look before firing away. Noah Mason was a huge addition on the wing, while program stalwarts David Netherton, Elijah Smith, Ian Lyles and Vansh Patel knew how to play their part.

I saw people stand in awe in a gym after performances this winter (including the Taylor show listed above), but I don’t know if I saw a fanbase be more proud of a team than the Lion faithful when Covenant won the TNCAA championship. It felt like everybody hung around for hours, hoping to soak in every second of such a great run and to cut down the nets.

Hopefully they have many more of those special moments in the future.

5. Covenant soccer

Undefeated TNCAA run, won soccer title

I’ll get this out of the way first – I know the Covenant HS soccer team is co-ed. I’m listing them with the boys teams because I wanted to honor them and I had five girls teams I wanted to honor too, so they landed here. My Superlatives – my rules.

With that out of the way, I just wanted to brag on this group. Once you added in the girls who helped Covenant win a volleyball title to the boys who won the basketball championship, you just had an entire starting lineup full of swagger.

The thing I liked most about these Lions were how confident they were every time they took the pitch. They didn’t just expect to win, they wanted to dominate. They did it too, completely dismantling all their TNCAA opponents to become the third high school program to win a title during the 2020-21 school year (the Covenant tennis teams would claim title No. 4 and 5 shortly after).

As fun as their wins were – and they had quite a few – I think I enjoyed their showing in the WCHS indoor facility the most. On a night where the Lions were supposed to have a showdown with the Pioneers, rain forced the teams inside. Instead of just sitting around in hopes the skies would clear up (they didn’t), the teams agreed to hold a smaller game inside.

For a half, the Lions stood toe-to-toe with the Pioneers, backed up by a huge performance in the net by Smit Patel. Warren County would eventually seize control in the second half, but Covenant made them sweat.

Talking to the team after the game, you could still feel their confidence. Maybe they couldn’t make the claim of being the best soccer team in Warren County, but for the first time, I think the Lions felt like they could at least be in the discussion.

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