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Simmons Says - Reviewing a decade on the sports desk
Isaiah Grayson (2) original.jpg
It didn't take long to realize Isaiah Grayson was a special athlete. Even in 2014 as a freshman, he was dominating on the gridiron.

It seems like only yesterday I was walking through the kennels in Knoxville, getting ready to walk dogs while thinking how I ended up as a pooper-scooper after getting my degree. Suddenly, my phone rang with a 931 area code. I got really nervous.

It was just a few days before my birthday in February 2010, and I had made a trip back to my hometown recently to talk to James Clark. I was hoping our conversation about the open sports job had gone well, and he was on the other line.

Luckily, the interview did go well and he was the one calling. I gleefully accepted the sports job, and on Feb. 8, 2010, I became the Standard sports reporter.

While there’s been a few times this decade I’ve been off the desk, for almost exactly nine of the 10 years in this decade, I’ve been at the Standard. And if I’m in the building, I’ve always had most of my focus on what is happening in local sports.

In coming issues, we’ll release the top 10 sports stories of 2019 (Friday, Dec. 27) and the top 10 sports stories of the decade (Sunday, Dec. 29), but I have my own things I’ll remember from the last 10 years of walking the sports beat. Here’s a look back at the stories, games and people I won’t forget.

Welcome to the job

Though it wasn’t the first thing I covered, I’ll never forget heading to Williamson County to cover Taylor Bain’s attempt to win a state wrestling medal. It seemed like a huge deal at the time and I was hitting the road in hopes of breaking news of our heavyweight standing at the top of the podium.

The only problem was I wasn’t going to come back with pictures.

When I arrived at the event, I realized I had left my battery pack at the office for my camera. All my plans were for naught, especially when Bain fell a few spots short of first.

Anytime I think I’ve really figured out this job, I remember leaving behind the battery.

All the hate

I won’t mention anybody directly – they know who they are – for all the hate they sent my way in my first five years. At one point, I had an entire board behind my desk full of angry letters from my “fans.” That doesn't count the many texts and calls I would get after a paper came out. 

Maybe I’ve been less controversial in my older age, but I think it’s more likely those people gave up trying to get under my skin. I thank them for my love of headphones at sporting events. 

Game ball

There’s been shirts, hoodies and hats thrown my way over the years from local teams. I've always appreciated the swag given to me and worn it proudly. 

One thing I never expected though, was a game ball.

After the 2012 volleyball team completed a 42-win season that included the program’s first district championship, the group gathered one final time for a banquet. Near the end of the event, coach Franklin Fisher started handing out balls to people who had helped the team throughout the year.

I sat and applauded the many parents and supporters, but was taken back when I heard “Jeffery Simmons” come out of coach Fisher’s mouth. I was handed a ball autographed by all of the Lady Pioneers.

I’ve moved four times since then, but that ball goes everywhere I go. It’ll be the souvenir from this job I’ll always keep. 

Top Players, Games and Coaches

I can’t possibly remember every single player or game I’ve attended over the decade – there’s been thousands of kids playing hundreds of games a year, but there’s some that just always stand out. Here’s a few, separated by boys and girls.

Favorite male athletes

Isaiah Grayson – There’s two things I’ll always remember about Isaiah. The first was when he led the Pioneers on the field at Oakland during his senior year. While others seemed like they were prepping for a football funeral, Grayson glided through warmups and had an energetic bounce before the first whistle.

His confidence was unmistakable. Even if Warren County didn’t belong on the same field as the unbeaten Patriots, Grayson knew he did.

The second was watching Grayson on the hardwood later that year during the region semifinals. In the fourth quarter, he was whistled for his fifth foul, sending him to the bench to watch the final five minutes of his high school athletic career.

I’ve seen many special seniors come and go, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a “not like this” feeling like I did when Grayson sat down. 

Cody Robinson – There’s never been a better example of work ethic for future Pioneers than Robinson. Sure, he was blessed with great size and an athletic bloodline, but he didn’t let that define him. He worked hard and made himself into a Division 1 athlete, ultimately earning starts at Duke.

I’ve often used the phrase “Warren County good” about kids who only work hard enough to be the best player locally. Robinson didn’t settle for being the best here – He wanted more and got it.

CJ Taylor – I still have another year of covering CJ, but it’s already been a blast. I’m hopeful he’ll strive to be like Robinson – an already blessed athlete who becomes one of the best in the state instead of simply the best in Warren County. I have a hunch he’ll get there.

Honorable mention – JT Morgan (really No. 1 on my list since he’s my younger brother), Caleb Northcutt, Lee Carden, Brooks Helton

Favorite female athletes

Lauren Wilkinson – Sometimes, it just boils down to talent. Wilkinson is arguably the best athlete, regardless of gender, to come out of Warren County in 20 years (Her and Krojhn Calbert would top my list). 

Wilkinson was a superstar on the hardwood, notching 1,000 points before she even reached her senior year. At the same time, she was the top softball player in a very tough district.

Her body never could recover for the constant beating she took playing both sports in high school, but there’s no question she was a standout as a Lady Pioneer.

Laura Beth McKinley – Not the most athletic or skilled, perhaps even in her own family, but Laura Beth was a winner. She did all the little things on the volleyball court to set up the Lady Pioneers for success. I’ll never forget her laying out on a diving save where she got two fingers under a ball to keep a rally alive. She never quit.

Emily Mikkola/Hailey Wood – These two are basically inseparable anyway, so there’s no reason to pick between them. Whether it was volleyball or softball, they just seemed to have a rare connection that transcended sports. It’ll be fascinating to see what happens when they play each other in college this season.

Honorable mention – Ansley Mullican, Blair Fisher, Monica Lane, Caroline McKinley

Favorite game

It’s easily the most mentioned team in this list, so it should come as no surprise that the 2012 Lady Pioneer volleyball team played my favorite match as well.

Cookeville had dominated Warren County in volleyball since both programs were formed and the Lady Cavaliers knew it too. They seemed to take special pleasure in beating the Lady Pioneers.

That 2012 group had a special disdain for Cookeville. They didn’t try to hide it. 

When Cookeville came into Charlie Dalton Gym and took a 2-0 lead in the match, it felt like the same ol' song and dance. Even the best Warren County team in school history looked like it was no match for the Lady Cavaliers.

All the sudden, Warren County took the third set, during which Cookeville’s coach yelled loudly that Lady Pioneer senior Megan Dishman “won’t hit the ball hard.” Dishman crammed a few spikes right through the teeth of the Cookeville defense right after.

Emily Newman, one of six seniors on the team, ended the fourth set with a rocket serve that Cookeville couldn’t handle, setting up a deciding fifth set.

I remember each point adding to the drama – and the determination in the eyes of the Lady Pioneers. They didn’t care about 26 straight years of losing to Cookeville – they were going to be better for at least one night.

When it was over, there were tears. There was also my favorite picture – coach Fisher hugging his wife Leanne and daughter Blair, who was a senior on the team, on the court.

It was a magical night.

Favorite coaches

Fisher will always rank very high in my book. He was my teacher in school and helped me make a smooth transition at the Standard. Same for Chris Sullens, who coached both my younger brothers when they played school ball. 

Gooby Martin, Erick Baird, Leanne Morrison, Matt Turner and Todd Willmore are a few more that stand out in my mind as people I’ll always talk to, even if they aren’t coaching or I’m not writing.

Who knows when that will be though? I may be doing this again in 10 years.