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.
Let’s get to it:
1. WCHS softball
I have to admit, part of me expected the Lady Pioneers to take a step back this season. I know it is foolish to count out a squad coached by Gooby Martin, especially when there is still high level talent dotting the roster, but I just assumed some regression had to come.
When the team was last playing, the 2019 Lady Pioneers were a game away from going to the state tournament. It was the culmination of a three-year run which included a district regular season title, district tournament title and region championship – all firsts for the program.
After that game, the roster had some huge holes. Ashton Whiles, Hailey Wood and Emily Mikkola all moved to become all-conference players in college, while Grace Rains was an all-district OF and Maddie Cantrell had pitched some big innings.
It felt like 2020 was going to be the perfect rebuilding/retooling year, where some youngsters could get valuable reps while the holdovers could carry the load and keep the team in contention. Instead, COVID came and all development was halted. Even worse, the Lady Pioneers lost two more valuable players to that region championship squad – Calyn Damon and MaKenna Mason.
By the time this year started, the Lady Pioneers had three players who had varsity experience – 3B Rhealee Johnson, CF Elia Atterson and pitcher Madison Hollis. The rest of the lineup felt like a bunch of wildcards – it turned out there were just more studs ready to get their chance.
Catcher Shelby Roberts emerged as one of the best players in the district, senior Sadie Simmons was a valuable leader, young middle infielders Alyssa Mosley, Aleya Esparza and Cadi Todd showed up big time and Taylor Swan and Kaydee Rains made sure the outfield was in good hands.
If not for Hollis’ shoulder giving out during the district tournament, there’s a good chance the Lady Pioneers would be in the region tournament for the fourth straight year. They almost made it anyway (they’ll be kicking themselves for a while due to a 1-0 loss to Rhea County in the tournament, the lone time they were shut out in district this season).
They may have been a surprise to me, but it didn’t seem like the Lady Pioneers were shocked by their dominance. And make no mistake, Warren County was flat-out dominant in district games during the regular season. They squashed everybody, save for the lone loss to White County that the Lady Pioneers avenged on the road a week later.
I’ll avoid counting them out next year, especially with Hollis back in the circle and Roberts looking to build on a breakout junior campaign. There may need to be a few more holes patched between now and next spring, but the Lady Pioneers are going to be in the championship hunt once again.
2. WCHS soccer
I’m going to go ahead and make this bold prediction for 2021-22: the Lady Pioneer soccer team will win a Simmons’ Superlative for Best Team and multiple members of the roster will be featured in other categories.
The Lady Pioneers should be LOADED this fall, when they’ll likely be favorites for a district crown. That’s what happens when you win a regular season district title and bring back virtually the entire lineup that was starting by the end of the season.
I don’t want to take away from the senior class that departed (Sarah Badger and Journey Cowan, especially), but Warren County has some major pieces in place for this fall. It will be many of the same faces that made last year’s team so hard to stop, particularly District 6AAA MVP and two-time, all-state honoree Katie Toney.
Putting Toney atop the attack, flanked by the spectacular Bekah Jackson, is an embarrassment of riches for most teams. Add in capable scorers like Jaden Smartt, Carmen Verdel, Breezy Wanamaker and Jessica Chastain and you’re talking about some of the best firepower in the state.
What was so impressive about last year’s team is that the defense may be just as good as the offense. Coach Todd Willmore constantly heaped praise on his brick wall in the back, featuring the foursome of Shelby Roberts, Bailey Bundy, Savannah Winfree and Natalie Stepien. They all do a good job in front of Samantha McCormick, who was taken out with a borderline dirty hit (not really borderline, it was clearly dirty) against Cookeville in the district finals that likely kept the team from winning a title last fall.
There is talent waiting in the wings too. Warren County could be as many as 15 deep next year, depending on who comes out and decides to play this fall.
3. Covenant volleyball
In the season of championships at Covenant, the Lady Lion volleyball team got everything started by winning the TNCAA championship last fall. They did it in dominating fashion as well, with their only real blemish on the way to the title coming in a 5-set loss at Boyd late in the season.
Covenant was able to get its revenge in the championship game, taking down the Lady Broncos in straight sets to claim the TNCAA title. Along the way, seniors Madisen Madewell and Sarah Sharpe emerged as two of the top talents in the area on the court.
Madewell was magnificent in the championship tilt, earning MVP honors for doing all the little things to help the Lady Lions get over the final hump. She probably couldn’t have done it without Sharpe, who parlayed such a standout year at the net for the Lady Lions into a scholarship to Bryan College this fall.
When I got to see the Lady Lions play, I was always impressed by how good they were at not beating themselves and keeping the ball in play. Covenant rarely conceded points with errant shots or serves, nor was the team going to just watch a ball hit the floor without somebody diving. It was 100 percent effort from a squad that was deep and talented.
There will be some big shoes to fill with the Class of 2021 leaving, but something tells me the Lady Lions are going to be in a position to win another title this fall. They’ll get a chance to do it on a very nice, new court too.
4. Boyd basketball
She didn’t know it at the time, but Kinslee Grissom hit the biggest shot for the Lady Broncos in 2020-21. Actually, maybe she did know. Everybody celebrated like it was anyway.
Grissom’s 3-pointer at the buzzer in the TNCAA tournament eventually proved to be the shot to give the Boyd girls a title. At the time, the Lady Broncos knew it got them to the finals, but after some setbacks in trying to schedule the final games, the TNCAA decided to award division titles and the Lady Broncos got their banner.
This is a group which should be in play for even more wins this winter. I think the Lady Broncos should be favorites for a TNCAA title again and I’m sure – if they attend – they’ll make noise in the NACA national tournament as well. They bring back some heavy hitters and I’ve already seen all the highlights of them putting in work this spring.
Audrey Durham was a human highlight reel last year, while Anna Jones should be closing in on 1,000 points at Boyd when she comes back to command the paint this winter. Add in Lia Wright, who came in late last season and was named NACA all-tournament, and you have a long and strong front line.
Grissom is one of the team’s top returning guards and I suspect Boyd is going to find a way to keep growing its roster as well.
Good things are happening at JK Stanley Gymnasium. Make sure to be on the lookout for the Lady Broncos.
5. WCHS track
So this was a weird ranking for me. Traditionally, I don’t think of track, wrestling or golf as ‘team’ sports – they obviously are grouped as a team, but almost everybody competes individually (except for track relays). They can also win team events, but I’m used to writing about those sports in terms of individual success.
I just couldn’t leave out this year’s group of Lady Pioneers though. They had some dominant individual performances and it’s rare when you have a group locally send five people to the state tournament. So, I had to bump Anthony Lippe’s resurgent Lady Pioneer basketball team (they’ll be on this list next year, if I had to bet) and make room for the track stars.
This spring, the Lady Pioneers rewrote the school record books. Ally Beneke set a new school record in the high jump (and finished fifth in the state), while Ella VanVranken is the new record holder in both the 800- and 1,600-meter races. Kyra Perkins kept up the family tradition by setting the school’s long jump record (Her dad, Alan, and brother, Jayren, are both school record holders too), while Katie Toney blazed a new school best in the 400.
To top it off, Toney, VanVranken, Cadee Griffith and Emma Randall represented the school in the state tournament by qualifying in the 4x800 relay. That’s just an all-around great year.
As long as DeKalb County doesn’t decide to form its own track team next year and steal Beneke, VanVranken and Griffith, the Lady Pioneers should bet up for even more success next fall. All of the record holders still have high school eligibility left. I’m going to be selfish – even if Smithville does form a team, I think all these girls should stick together in Warren County and go for gold in the Red, White and Blue next spring.