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WCHS basketball season ends

Back in October, the District 6-AAA coaches gathered to make their predictions on the upcoming season. When the ballots were revealed, Warren County ranked last in the five-team district.
By the end of the year, the Pioneers had reached their third regional tournament in four years and surprised several teams along the way.
In coach Malcolm Montgomery’s fourth year at the helm of the Pioneers, Warren County finished the season 13-21 as the final loss came to the Walker Valley Mustangs Saturday in the regional tournament.
Coach Montgomery, who said before the season that he wanted to see his team respond after missing the regional tournament last season, believed his squad continued to build on the things he’s been hoping to grow since taking over the program.
“We competed this season and continued to grow as a program,” said Montgomery. “We’re making positive steps to where we want to be.”
The Pioneers won some big games, like defeating Tullahoma on the road and downing Coffee County in the district tournament. Warren County also suffered many narrow losses, games coach Montgomery believes will be key to building the team in the future.
“The guys did a good job this year and we were in plenty of games where we had a shot at the end,” said Montgomery. “We have to work on closing out games and limiting our mistakes at the end. That will be the difference between 13-win seasons and 18 or 19 wins a year.”
Entering the season knowing his team would have to lean heavily on seniors Kendall Rutledge, Tucker Smith and Nick Simmons, coach Montgomery didn’t foresee having to play multiple games without his core of star performers.
Of the Pioneers’ 34 games, the seniors were together in only 23. Rutledge missed an early-season game, a loss to Gabriel Christian, while Smith missed the team’s last six regular season games when the Pioneers went 1-5. Simmons was lost in December with the flu and Warren County was 1-3 in his absence.
When the seniors were together, the Pioneers were 11-12. With one senior missing, Warren County went 2-9. The importance of the seniors, who scored 60 percent of the team’s points, was obvious as the players impacted the Pioneers in different ways.
Rutledge finished his senior year with a scoring average of 12.1 points per game. He set his career high in the huge road win over Tullahoma in December when he poured in 23 points, hitting five of his patented corner 3-pointers. Rutledge would go on to top the mark against Cookeville in January when he scored 24 points in a narrow loss to the Cavaliers.
Rutledge developed into a vocal leader in his senior year and thought the year went better than expected.
“I think we had a great season, though I wish we could’ve won a few more games,” said Rutledge. “I really wanted to beat Walker Valley, but we didn’t get the job done. I hope the next group will be able to finish the job at regionals.”
Smith brought high-flying basketball back to Warren County this season as the senior forward was able to attack the rim at will against opponents. Equally adept at hitting an off-balanced jumper or throwing down a dunk, Smith had a number of big games as he led the team in scoring 14 times. Smith’s biggest scoring night was a 29-point effort against Northwest Whitfield in the Wildcat Classic. The senior also had 24 points in a home win over the Cumberland County Jets, who went on to win the District 6-AAA tournament.
Smith lamented about the way the season ended, but he still feels fortunate to have been part of a tight-knit team.
“Our season had ups and downs, good times and bad times,” said Smith. “We played better than people expected, but we didn’t get to where we truly could have gone. Even though our season ended in heartbreak, we had a good ride.
“I would love to change the outcome of our season, but I would not change all the experiences I’ve had with these guys. Some of them are like brothers to me now.”
Simmons had one of the defining moments of the season for Warren County. His game-winning three-point play against Coffee County in January was one of three buzzer beaters for the Pioneers and it came against a District 6-AAA rival. The sturdy 6-foot-7 senior center finished the season on a tear, scoring in double figures eight of the last 11 games. His season high came against the Red Raiders on the road when he tallied 15 points.
Simmons thought the season was one where Warren County left it all on the court.
“The team this year worked very hard and we played to the best of our abilities,” said Simmons. “I’m proud to have been a part of it.”
Coach Montgomery will have a tough task replacing his three seniors, but some key players will return. Starting guards D’Andre League and Lee Carden will be back for their senior years, along with top reserves Ryan Jennings, Malik Ladet and Lance Kelley.
The Pioneers will continue to compete in District 6-AAA, although it will look different. Coffee County will no longer be a district opponent, but Stone Memorial and Rhea County will be added to the schedule.

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