Welcome to the Warren County Sports Authority Top 10 of 2021. Each day until Dec. 31, we will be releasing a new story counting down the top 10 sports stories in Warren County this year. Be sure to check back every day to see the biggest headlines from this year!
No. 1 - The Pioneers win back-to-back district titles, win an epic game against East Hamilton in the region, advance to first substate in four decades
What else could have been No. 1 in 2021? No team captured the hearts of Warren County or won more than the Pioneer basketball team, which claimed its second straight District 6AAA title, won two region games at Charlie Dalton Gym (including an unforgettable OT victory spurred on by CJ Taylor against East Hamilton) and advanced to substate for the first time in 45 years.
Take a walk back down memory lane by reliving two of the biggest wins in the postseason (topping White County for the district and taking down the Hurricanes in OT) and see what the seniors - Dante Elam, CJ Taylor, Dee Spates and Aiden Cummings - said after it was all over.
District Finals - Pioneers beat Sparta 73-65
It was the perfect song for the perfect night. Speakers were bumping Drake, players were dancing and the song every Pioneer knew was, “Back to Back.”
Warren County claimed its second straight District 6AAA title Tuesday night, beating White County 73-65 at Charlie Dalton Gym.
Dee Spates was named tournament MVP after a 13-point performance. The senior was unstoppable late, carrying the Pioneers to the finish line after seniors CJ Taylor and Aiden Cummings each fouled out.
Taylor had 28 points to lead the Pioneers, tying for the game high with Sparta’s Grant Slatton. Cummings also had 13 points for the Pioneers.
Here is a snippet from the district championship story:
Spates had all the answers
Coach Chris Sullens still recalls the first time he heard about Dee Spates. The Blackman transfer had showed up at Warren County High School and some of the current Pioneers watched him play. They relayed the message to their coach quickly.
“I had some guys message me and say, ‘Hey, there is this new kid here and I think he can play,'” recalled Sullens. “We brought him in for a tryout and it wasn’t long after that we put the ball in his hands.”
Nobody was happier than Sullens to hear ‘MVP’ chants come from a huge Charlie Dalton Gym crowd for Spates.
“Dee is the best guard we’ve ever coached. He’s the best guard in this district – he’s a matchup problem,” said Sullens.
When Bryan Kell called Spates’ name for the MVP, the moment hit home for the senior.
“I knew I was going to get MVP and I cried. It’s a good honor – I came here and this is my family,” said Spates.
His 13 points were huge and his passing likely set up 20 more points for the Pioneers in the title game. But perhaps the biggest thing Spates did Tuesday was make his coach comfortable in the clutch, settling down the Pioneers when Taylor and Cummings both fouled out.
“We don’t coach for 32 minutes – we coach for 30 minutes. We know what’s going to happen those last two minutes – Dee is just a tough matchup and it’s hard to get the ball out of his hands,” said Sullens. “Late in the game, we had some guys in there that may not have been ready to break the press. Our message was simple - Throw it to Dee and let him be the press break.
“He’s tough to guard – at the end of games, other teams are asking themselves, ‘who wants to guard him?’”
Taylor, who was last year’s tournament MVP, was happy to hand over his crown to Spates for a night.
“Dee deserved it. He survived those last five minutes without me and Aiden. I’m glad he got MVP,” said Taylor.
Spates was determined to get the Pioneers to the finish line. He was going to get greedy when it came to hanging banners.
“We got one, we had to get another one,” said Spates. “I kept thinking of what coach has always told me - I’m trying to execute, get the ball in my hands and get to the free-throw line. Anything to get the win.”
His floaters never looked prettier; Sparta may have had the length on its front line, but it didn’t matter when the Pioneer speedster got in the lane. Spates got to his sweet spot, elevated and lofted precision shots right over the Warriors.
When Taylor was on the bench in the fourth quarter, Spates took over. He set up easy layups for Aaron Ashburn and Cummings (which turned into a three-point play) early in the period.
“Dee has all types of tricks up his sleeve, you never know when it’s coming or how it’s coming. I just have my hands up and stay ready,” said Cummings after the game.
Down the stretch, Spates was a blur. His biggest highlight was an all-sprint layup with 3:03 left. Spates weaved through the Sparta press, setting his sights on the hoop. The Warrior defense retreated, not knowing if Spates would unleash his floater or thread the needle for another layup.
Spates froze Cameron Stephens with a pass fake, side stepped the big man and flipped in a layup. It was a thing of beauty, a moment where all of Spates’ skills were at the highest level and Sparta had no answer.
The Region Semifinal, Pioneers win in OT
Build the statue. Retire the jersey. CJ Taylor’s legacy is cemented.
Taylor powered the Pioneers back in the region semifinals, scoring 29 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to help Warren County beat East Hamilton 75-66.
“I can’t even explain what I just saw,” said coach Chris Sullens on Taylor’s legendary performance. “I want to go back and watch it again. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Taylor finished with a game-high 37 points, including a barrage of 3-pointers to bring the Pioneers back from a double-digit deficit in the final minutes.
Make sure to check out WCS-TV's awesome highlight package of CJ Taylor's incredible shot making in the region semifinal against East Hamilton.
Here's a snippet from the region semifinal victory story:
Don’t talk trash to Taylor
Apparently East Hamilton didn’t read the scouting report on CJ Taylor. If they did, then the Hurricane players would’ve known better than to poke the G.O.A.T.
Late in the third quarter, Taylor had just eight points and was going to the line with his team down double digits. Taylor missed both freebies and, from afar, he heard the trash talk – “You’re obviously not Mr. Basketball.” When the player made the mistake of telling CJ he was outscoring the Pioneer star, Taylor just smiled and delivered a two-word rebuttal.
Taylor proceeded to rip the Hurricane defense to shreds in the fourth quarter in overtime. Taylor scored 29 points in the final 12 minutes, including a stretch where he sank six straight 3-pointers in the fourth quarter.
His last shot was a thing of beauty.
With the Pioneers down three and the final seconds ticking off, Taylor was stopped at the top of the key and trapped. He dished to his right, finding Kaden Rutledge standing alone. Right as he passed it, he started running to the wing.
Rutledge passed it back to Taylor, even as he was smothered by a double team. It didn’t matter – Taylor shot the off-balance, 25-footer between a pair of Hurricanes and it hit nothing but net.
“That last shot to send it into overtime – it’s as tough of a shot as you will ever see and it hit nothing but net,” said coach Chris Sullens. “He didn’t even draw iron on any of the last ones - it was nothing but net. He continues to amaze – I’m glad he’s on our side.”
Taylor made sure to let his coach know that being on the opposite side of him is a losing proposal.
“After CJ hit the tying shot, looked me square in the eye and said, ‘You would not want to coach against me because I’d beat you every time.’ I can’t disagree with him. I don’t think East Hamilton could’ve done anything else,” said Sullens.
Taylor finished off the Hurricanes late, sinking four free throws in the final 30 seconds of overtime to seal the Pioneer victory. Before taking his last free throw, Taylor stood at the free-throw line with a smile as he stared at the Hurricane player who was talking earlier.
He was silenced. Taylor’s barrage of triples did enough talking.
Dream season ends for the Pioneers
One more step.
Warren County was hoping it would reach the top of the state’s summit – and earn a spot at the Glass House – but the Pioneers fell one step short. Siegel took down Warren County 72-58, ending the Pioneers’ season – and that of four senior starters – in the sectionals.
CJ Taylor scored with 22 points in his final game as a Pioneer and fellow senior Aiden Cummings added 18 in a hard-fought matchup with the Stars.
“We had some opportunities. We got with 2-3 points there early in the third quarter, but they hit us with a run and we couldn’t close the gap again,” said Pioneer coach Chris Sullens. “This group has done so much for our program. They’ve been a pleasure to coach. They’ve lifted this program to new heights.
“This town has starved for a winner and this group gave it to them for two years. It’s been a hell of a ride.”
Here's a snippet from the final basketball story of the 2020-21 season:
Seniors leave their mark
The numbers speak for themselves: 77 wins, 2 district titles, 3 region berths and the first substate berth in 45 years. The class of 2021 is one of the most decorated groups to ever put on a Pioneer uniform.
Taylor, Cummings, Dee Spates and Dante Elam won’t easily be replaced. Their scoring, rebounding, defense and passion as Pioneers will be remembered for a long time, but what they did behind the scenes was just as impressive.
They had a drive to be out there with each other and nothing was going to stop them from taking on challenges together.
Elam was the latest example of the group’s toughness. During the East Hamilton game, Elam went down with a leg injury that needed immediate attention. He was sidelined for most of the first half, but he decided he was going to get back on the court no matter what.
He played the region final and sectional games with his leg heavily bandaged. He decided to gut through it, hoping he could help the Pioneers get one last win. It didn’t happen, but it wasn’t for lack of effort from the senior guard.
“Dante battled adversity his whole career. He became as steady of a basketball player as we’ve had in a long time,” said Sullens.
The entire senior class had a high pain tolerance.
Pioneer fans are used to seeing Taylor hobbled throughout his career, the result of carrying a heavy weight and taking big hits. He took another huge hit last week when he went flying over the scorer’s table against McMinn County to try to grab a steal.
That hit left him with a badly bruised big toe, an injury that would’ve forced many players out of several games. Taylor pushed through and scored 37 points against East Hamilton in a performance nobody will forget.
Cummings played through lower leg injuries much of the season and Spates was the team’s Iron Man, playing almost every minute in the postseason.
Here are what the seniors think about what they’ve accomplished and how they’ve left the program:
Elam: “It feels good and unreal. The bar is set for Warren County in both football and basketball. I expect wins from here on out.”
Cummings: “It was an amazing run. I wouldn’t ask for any other teammates or coaches. We did things that have never been done before. We gave the younger guys and the community a taste of what it is like to win – I expect them to keep winning!”
Taylor: “Sectionals didn’t go as well as we’d like, but all good things come to an end. Warren County will always have a special place in my heart. This closed the book on my career at Warren County and I’m ready to start a new chapter at Vanderbilt. I can’t wait to represent Warren County the right way.”
Spates: “I can’t forget how and when it started. Having a great team like us and having players like this is a blessing. Warren County will never be forgotten for me. I’m ready to play at the next level because my teammates made me into a good teammate. I’ll never forget them – thank y’all!”
Final words from the coaching staff
The Warren County Sports Authority was able to get a behind-the-scenes look in the locker room after Monday’s game. Here is a snippet of the closing messages from the Pioneer coaching staff:
Coach Chris Sullens: “I shed some tears before we even got to sectionals. You took it to a place that nobody said you were going to go. You did that and I’m proud of you. Did you see how we took their gym over? This town wants this so bad and you gave it to them for two consecutive years.
“That’s something that should stick with you for a long, long time and it will. I know it will stick with me. For all that time, I was along for a ride. Walk out with your heads held high. We have something to be proud of because you’ve built it. We have the foundation, now just keep adding floors.”
Assistant coach Adam Wood: “I hope you all learned something about life this year, because I did. It’s amazing when a group of people come together what you can accomplish - And there were some great individual accomplishments too. I’ll remember you – and the community will remember you. You took this a long way. Be proud of yourselves. I love you.”
Assistant coach Camron Bond: “You’ve taken me on a ride, this coaching staff on a ride and, more importantly, this community to where it’s never been. You’ll be engrained forever for what you’ve done. Time will show. I wouldn’t trade anybody on this team for anybody in any other locker room. They haven’t been what we’ve been through. It’s not always easy at Warren County, but we just kept going.”
Assistant coach Stephen Glenn: “You guys could’ve left and went to other schools, but you chose not. You made Warren County your signature stamp. I remember all you guys coming in as freshmen and taking you through AAU ball. When we got here, we said we were going to start this thing. The impact that you have left on us coaches and the fans speaks volumes. You’ll always have a home and a special place in our hearts. I’m super proud of you.”
Coming up with a top 10 for 2021 - WCSA Jeffery Simmons did one final podcast this year to explain how he does his list, what teams/athletes barely missed the cut and what he expects to see in 2022:
Here are the other top 10 stories from 2021:
No. 2 - Katie Toney sets school records, earns all-state honors, signs with TTU: https://www.wcsportsauthority.com/post/top-10-of-2021-toney-sets-school-records-signs-with-ttu
No. 3A – WCHS track sets school records, send five to state: https://www.wcsportsauthority.com/post/top-10-of-2021-wchs-track-shatters-records-sends-5-to-state
No. 3B – Lady Pioneers win Sonic Shootout, start season on fire: https://www.wcsportsauthority.com/post/top-10-of-2021-no-3-lady-pioneers-win-sonic-shootout
No. 4 – Ike Gillentine earns state medal in wrestling: https://www.wcsportsauthority.com/post/top-10-of-2021-no-4-gillentine-medals-in-state-tourney
No. 5 – Lauren Slatton finishes sixth at state, wins district: https://www.wcsportsauthority.com/post/top-10-of-2021-no-5-slatton-finishes-sixth-at-state
No. 6 – Pioneers win district regular season baseball title: https://www.wcsportsauthority.com/post/top-10-of-2021-no-6-pioneers-win-district-baseball-title
No. 7 – COVID shuts down Pioneer football, causing the first game cancellations in school history: https://www.wcsportsauthority.com/post/top-10-of-2021-no-7-covid-shutdowns-slow-pioneer-football
No. 8 – Covenant’s year of championships: https://www.wcsportsauthority.com/post/top-10-of-2021-no-8-covenant-wins-multiple-tncaa-titles
No. 9 – Boyd’s special year: https://www.wcsportsauthority.com/post/top-10-of-2021-no-9-boyd-s-special-year
No. 10 – WC Sports Hall of Fame adds 13 members: