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Simmons Says - One final look at Pioneer football

Despite a few persistent rumors about the potential of the Nurseryman’s Bowl returning, it seems the Pioneer football season has officially come to a close. For the first time in what seems like six months, there were no pads popping at the WCHS practice field Monday. 

The hissing sounds of whistles and booming voices shouting instructions were absent. In its place, a silence around the locker rooms, aside from Matt Turner going through and getting the place clean. 

Standing alone in the room where he brought together some 40 players to compile a 4-6 season, Turner was doing exactly what he said he’d do just minutes after the season ended last Friday at Oakland.

“Work starts Monday,” Turner said standing on Oakland’s field following a season-ending 49-14 loss where the Pioneers stood toe-to-toe with the state’s best in the first half. “We’ll work and get ready to have our (offseason) program in place by December.”

In far too many years prior, everybody was ready to hang up the cleats and helmets, sometimes well before November. Football wasn’t a driving force of excitement – at best there was hope, but usually it was apathy or a chance to get a reunion together on a Friday night. This season was decidedly different. 

Nobody would’ve been angry to see the Pioneers play again, either in the playoffs or in a bowl game (which almost happened). Warren County’s 4-1 mark at home was greeted with gigantic crowds, all eager to throw in their support.

Because of this season’s success, let’s take one last look before turning the page and moving forward in the sports world.

Highest High

While the most impressive moment of the season probably occurred last week when Warren County was tied 14-14 with Oakland, the reigning state champion, in the first half, this team didn’t have to settle for moral victories.

There were plenty of actual victories to highlight, with the 29-28 victory over Siegel on homecoming being the best of the bunch.

Warren County rallied to tie the game with 2:35 to play, only to give up a long touchdown pass a minute later that looked like a back breaker. In past years, the Pioneers would’ve folded, especially when a penalty on the kickoff pushed the team back to its own 10. 

This team came out fighting. CJ Taylor engineered a four-play, 90-yard drive that he capped with his fourth touchdown in the final 30 seconds to give the Pioneers a huge victory. 

Turner’s favorite phrase to use is “burn the ships,” as he tells his team to forget the past and move forward. With the aid of a 30-foot, fire-breathing dragon on the sideline, the Pioneers were able to burn a new memory in the heads of all Pioneer fans – this team can beat some Murfreesboro schools.

Lowest Low

Rarely does one game produce two columns to summarize the effects, but Week 2’s loss at Cannon County did just that. Mine talked about the general buzz from fans who wondered if it was the worst loss in program history, while editor James Clark wondered why anybody would even bother to try to find out if it was. 

The Lions ended up the season 5-5, a far cry from the state’s longest losing streak (fueled by forfeiting four wins last year) that was snapped Aug. 30 when Warren County fell 20-7. It was the most head-scratching loss, even if the Cookeville loss was the most devastating to the team’s goal of reaching the playoffs.

Biggest Surprise

Lacedrick ‘Red’ Cox decided last spring he would give football a chance during his senior year. The Pioneers got really lucky he did. 

Cox was a driving force behind their opening week victory over DeKalb County, picking off two passes and returning a fumble for a touchdown. He didn’t slow down much while serving as a lock-down corner. 

Red could run it too. He finished the season averaging over 12 yards a touch offensively with four touchdowns.

His success, coupled with the impacts WR/RB Malachi Rippy, DL Cristian Espinoza and others made while coming out as seniors, should tell any athlete at the high school that it’s never too late to live the gridiron glories. 

If you can play, you’ll find your way on the field. 

Favorite quote 

“I’ll go to work realigning, evaluating and recruiting staff. Also, I’ll evaluate our administration and the stakeholders to make sure we’re getting the proper funding to play 6A ball. If we’re going to be in this region, we have to be in it and fund and support it,” said Turner after Friday’s final game. 

Turner’s earned the right to make staff additions, but that would take additional funding. While Warren County took a major step forward to compete with the big boys when it built the $1.3M indoor facility, it’s widely assumed the coaching pay in Warren County – especially for assistants – still lags behind the money in Murfreesboro.

Before people say, “of course it does, we don’t have money in this area like Murfreesboro,” I just want to remind everybody again that Warren County had a proposal in place last year to move out of the current region. They declined to play that card and signed up for two more years of Region 3-6A.

If you want to step in the ring with the big boys, then you have to be able to spend with them too.

Looking Forward

Graduation will leave holes in the roster, especially across the front lines. That being said, there’s plenty of optimism this group can be even better next year.

The No. 1 reason is No. 1 – CJ Taylor. Taylor was the team’s leading rusher (898 yards, 15 TD) and passer, along with one of the top defenders on the team (65 tackles, two interceptions).

He doesn’t have to be a one-man operation though.

Xander Lee will be back to pound defenses with his bruising style. The Holder brothers, Kason and Ryland, came back as juniors during the fall and immediately earned starting positions. Clay Thompson, last year’s starting QB and safety, didn’t play a snap this season, but should be good to go as a senior next year.

De’Arkquarious and Devans Lewis moved to town midway through the season from Orlando, putting them behind the 8-ball to learn the schemes. With an offseason to process everything, both should be big-time contributors next fall.

There’s also Dante Elam, Douglas Wells, Kaden Jordan, Bryson Elrod, Aiden Cummings – all two-way starters this season. A handful of other players also gained valuable playing time this fall.

Adding to that stellar group will be a freshman squad which surprised folks by going 3-2 this fall. There’s at least 4-5 players from there who should get plenty of early action on the varsity team.

Many will miss spending Friday nights watching this group of Pioneers, but they leave behind plenty of hope things could be even better when they’re back under the Nunley Stadium lights next fall.