The Pioneers are coming off a winning season for just the second time this century, but don’t expect coach Chris Sullens to be happy about it.
If anything, he expected more last year and he’s making sure his group knows it as the start of the 2019-20 season nears.
“Our expectations are the same as always – playing for a district title and competing in a region final to get to a sectional game,” said Sullens, who enters his sixth season with the Pioneers. “We’re coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in almost 20 years, but in my view, last year was a down year based on how we finished. I take full responsibility for that.
“We expect to be the best team on the floor each night and to outwork ouropponent.”
Warren County will begin its season in the Hall of Champions event held at Community High School Tuesday, Nov. 19. The Pioneers are scheduled to play the Community Vikings.
Here’s a breakdown of story lines entering the season:
Player of the year?
By now, all Pioneer fans know the name CJ Taylor. It’s with good reason – he excels on the gridiron and the hardwood.
Taylor was one of the best players in the district last season, averaging 15.6 points per game while pulling down a team-high seven boards a game. While he may ease his way into the season – he’s currently resting his knees after a long football season – Taylor will likely compete with reigning District 6AAA player of the year Grant Slatton (White County) for top honors this season.
Warren County got a big boost to its roster when Dee Spates transferred from Blackman in the spring. The junior is expected to step into the starting role at point guard after working with the team throughout the summer.
Help also came in the fall when Phillip King was named the new WCHS baseball coach. He brought with him his son Grant, a senior who can do the little things for the Pioneers on the hardwood.
“Dee and Grant have come into the program and gained the respect of their teammates right away with their skill sets and how they conduct themselves as teammates,” said Sullens.
Freshman Kaden Rutledge was listed as a varsity player from the time he tried out for the team in the spring. Armed with a lightning-quick first step and an improving outside shot, Rutledge will get a chance to earn early minutes.
Lacedrick ‘Red’ Cox appointed himself a “corner 3-point specialist,” last winter after canning 43 percent of his 3s, including making 35 from the corners. Named all-district after finishing the season with three of his best scoring games in the last four outings, including 22 points in a victory over Rhea County, Sullens hopes Red can expand his game.
“He’s a big piece of the program – he knows it and doesn’t shy away from it. He’s hungry for more success,” said Sullens.
Fellow senior Eli Jones is a sniper from distance, hitting the second-most 3-pointers (42) on the team last year. Jones is a floor spacer who should get open looks playing off-ball in lineups featuring Spates and Taylor.
Knowing their role
Senior Irving Espinoza and juniors Aiden Cummings and Dante Elam all have chances to cement their place in the rotation by playing their roles well.
Espinoza is a known gunner, having earned all-district accolades as a sophomore based on his ability to get buckets. He can be used as instant offense, either as a starter or a spark-plug sixth man. Defense will be a deciding factor in Espinoza’s minutes.
Cummings provides the size (6-foot-3, 235 pounds) nobody else on the roster possesses. Cummings flashed potential last year, scoring 14 points in a road win at Livingston Academy, but fell out of the rotation in the final weeks. He’ll need to be a rim deterrent and vacuum on the glass for the Pioneers.
Spates has done enough to secure lots of minutes as the team’s lead ball handler, but Elam still knows the system and what Sullens expects from the offense. Elam can also play sticky defense, a trait which is long been coveted by the Pioneer coaching staff when the district slate begins.