Unforgettable season ends
Warren County falls to Siegel in sectionals
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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.”
Dee Spates and Dante Elam were also in the starting lineup for the final time for the Pioneers Monday night.
Spates, who finished with 14 points, had a slew of highlights that gave Warren County hope against the Stars. Spates banked in a 3-pointer right before halftime to make a manageable 31-26 deficit at the break. He also had a steal of an inbounds pass in the third quarter after a Cummings layup, putting four quick Pioneer points on the board as Siegel’s lead was cut to 38-35.
It was as close as Warren County would get.
Siegel’s Mr. Basketball candidate Matthew Schneider scored 11 of his 17 points in the second half, including a big 3-pointer to put the Stars up by double figures late in the third quarter. Guards Zion Swader and Jaylan Wetzel also scored 17 points in Siegel’s victory.
Taylor went down firing for the Pioneers. In the closing moments, when Siegel thought it had the win sealed, the Pioneer superstar hit a leaning 3-pointer from right in front of the Pioneer bench. It proved to be Taylor’s final point for Warren County as he missed his next deep triple, leading to Sullens to sub out all his starters in the final 30 seconds.
Sophomore Kaden Rutledge, the lone Pioneer starter set to be back next year, had a late layup in the sectional matchup. Nate Elrod hit two late free throws, rounding out Warren County’s scoring.
With the win, Siegel is one of eight teams to qualify for the AAA state tournament held at MTSU’s Murphy Center. The Stars will open play in next week’s event against Oak Ridge.
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Pioneers pounded on the glass
It was on the top of coach Sullens’ keys to victory against the Stars Monday. The Pioneers had to own the boards against a quick, but not overly tall, Siegel squad. It was stressed in practice over the weekend and addressed at length in pregame conversations.
No matter how much the Pioneers talked about it, it didn’t happen when the game started. Siegel had six offensive rebounds in the opening three minutes, scoring almost all of its early points on second- and third-chance baskets.
It was a reoccurring theme – and one that powered Siegel to a victory.
In the final minutes, Warren County tried to make one last push. After a Pioneer triple cut the Star lead to seven, Warren County needed another stop and score to make Siegel sweat. The Pioneers were able to force the miss, but Swater – Siegel’s point guard – outleapt everybody in the paint for a putback.
It was a back-breaking bucket, one that sealed the Pioneers’ fate against the Stars.
Taylor leaves it all on the floor
The expectations on Taylor each night are enormous. At times, it feels like every fan is the next-door kid in the ‘Incredibles’ movie. When Taylor looks around packed gyms, all eyes are on him. If he asked what they wanted, I’m sure he’d get the same answer as the kid in the movie.
“I dunno. Something amazing I guess.”
It wasn’t Taylor’s other-worldly outburst against East Hamilton last week, but he still had flashes of brilliance against the Stars. He even had a few trademark crowd silencers, including a 3-pointer midway through the second quarter.
With Warren County down by seven and the Siegel student section getting rowdy, Taylor stepped up. As soon as CJ grabbed the ball, Siegel’s students started chanting his girlfriend’s name. He sized up his defender, who was waiting at the arc while Taylor was several feet behind the 3-point line, and decided to let it fire.
His shot hit nothing but net and Taylor made sure the Siegel students knew those three points were for them.
It’s hard to explain just how much attention Taylor attracts across the state. No matter where the Pioneers travel – or how good the home team is – Taylor is going to be the person everybody is there to see. He’s handled the attention and thrived so many times under the microscope this school year, whether it was on the hardwood or the gridiron.
While Taylor’s last shot as a Pioneer fell short – he shot it from near half court in the final 30 seconds – it is a lot easier to remember the shot that came just seconds before. The Pioneers were down double digits and there was just over a minute left.
Taylor demanded the ball, running across the court and curling behind the arc as he caught the pass. Even with two Siegel defenders converging, CJ launched an off-balance 3-pointer right in front of coach Sullens, the Warren County bench and a huge Pioneer crowd.
The symbolism was easy to spot. With Taylor watching the ball float through the air – and the entire Pioneer Nation right behind him waiting – the shot touched nothing but net.
Of course it did – Warren County needed something amazing one more time. CJ Taylor was going to deliver it.
Cummings closes strong
Before the game, assistant coach Stephen Glenn told the Pioneers to “empty the tank.” Coach Sullens echoed the statement, taking it a step further by adding, “Don’t leave anything out there. If you come back in here and know you’ve left it all on the court, it’s going to be the best feeling ever.”
Aiden Cummings took the words to heart. The Pioneer big man gave his all against the Stars, battering their undersize frontline for baskets all night.
It’s not easy to have an old-school post game in pace-and-space, 3-point bonanza sweeping the nation, but Cummings makes it work. He is a bull in the paint, nearly unstoppable at the rim if he can get his shoulder in – or around – a defender.
Without Cummings flourish late in the season, the Pioneers would have been done playing weeks ago. Cummings averaged 11.6 points and eight rebounds in the five postseason games – and four wins – before Monday’s matchup with Siegel. He had double-doubles against Cookeville (11 points, 15 rebounds) and McMinn County (17 points, 10 rebounds).
When Cummings fouled out with 3:15 left on an offensive foul, it took him an extra second to get to his feet. Whether it was exhaustion from giving everything or him coming to the slow realization his career was over, he needed some time to regroup.
Coach Sullens was there waiting on the sidelines, grabbing Cummings and giving him a hug before he took a much-deserved seat on the Pioneer bench.
After the game, Sullens praised the powerful post for his unstoppable drive to be a force for the Pioneers.
“Aiden is what a Pioneer basketball player should strive to be,” said Sullens. “He was a guy who we said would take longer than it should, but he said ‘No’ and worked his tail off to get better. The young guys should look at Aiden because he’s a guy who decided he wasn’t where he wanted to be and got better.”
If Warren County has more players with Cummings’ work ethic and talent in the pipeline, then it may not be 45 years before another sectional berth.
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.”