People like to refer to the Warren County High School athletic department – and the sports that encompass it – in many unflattering ways. Unsuccessful, the poster child of underachieving, a “good ole boy” network and etc.
One thing you can’t call it right now though is unwilling to change.
Pick up an annual from the 2013-14 school year and compare it to what the sports pages will look like this time next year and you’ll realize several faces have changed – and I’m not talking about the graduating seniors either. As many as six different coaches will take over next year and they’ll be leading some of the bigger sports in Warren County.
Chief among the new changes coming next school year is Scott Smith taking over the football program. A former TSSAA champion at Ezell Harding and coach of Moore County for the last four years, Smith was brought in to replace Tommy Johnson after four disappointing seasons with the Pioneers.
Johnson was the first domino to fall. Others simply followed as the seasons changed.
Next up was basketball coaches John Dillard and Erick Baird. Dillard resigned following his inaugural season as boys coach while Baird’s contract wasn’t renewed (nice way of saying he was fired) following his fifth season with the Lady Pioneers.
After that, resignations followed from softball coach David Upton (yet to be replaced) and boys soccer coach Todd Willmore, who stayed on as WCHS athletic director and recently hired his former assistant coach Orion Smith as the new Pioneer soccer coach. It’s likely the sixth new coach will come in tennis if/when David Dunlap decides to make his retirement official.
The new six coaches, which include both Smiths and new basketball leaders Shea Panter and Chris Sullens, join an athletic department that has been overhauled almost completely during my time at the Southern Standard sports desk.
Since taking over in February 2010, the only two coaches who have kept their positions at Warren County High School are Willmore as girls soccer coach and golf coach J.W. Holt. Every other sport has changed, and some have switched multiple times.
The retirement of legendary volleyball coach Franklin Fisher following the 2012 season left a void two people already tried to fill. Leah Simpson was originally hired to take Fisher’s place, but she resigned before coaching a single game. Dena Upton was at the helm last year and will be back for her second season this fall.
Amy Baird, who helped revive the cross country program in 2011, was tasked with taking over the track program following Jim Duvall’s resignation over the winter. Losing Duvall, Fisher and Upton in the span of 15 months meant Willmore and company had to replace over 45 years of combined coaching at Warren County High School.
Even the cheerleading and Pioneerette teams were hit during the turnover. Both teams broke in new coaches last school year.
With the changes likely done once the softball and tennis situations are resolved, Willmore and Holt will be left as the longest-tenured coaches at the school. Behind them are Amy Baird (four years as cross country coach) and Adam Childs, who recently completed his third year as baseball coach after winning the District 6-AAA championship.
So where is the athletic program headed? Well, who better than Willmore to answer that question. He graciously took time to answer a laundry list of questions I supplied him via e-mail and his answers point to a positive outlook toward Pioneer and Lady Pioneer sports in the future.
Regarding the turnover, Willmore says, “It’s just the nature of the profession. Each situation has been relatively unique. Several were the result of lifestyle and/or professional responsibility changes, while others had extenuating circumstances which precipitated their resignation or release.”
As for who the administration targeted when making their latest hires, Willmore believes it was just a matter of matching the right résumé and personality together during interviews. No additional importance was added to selecting local names.
“The focus in replacing these positions has always been to hire the best person for the program,” said Willmore. “Coincidentally, most of the recent hires have been local candidates.”
Lastly, Willmore believes the mostly new crop of coaches (14 in all spanning the school’s 15 teams) will make the sports landscape fun again and hopefully help lead Warren County back to its winning roots.
“In a perfect world, our goal is to hire a coach that will be here an extended period of time and is loved by all involved. Unfortunately, that is the exception rather than the norm in today’s society,” said Willmore. “Understanding how situations change and personalities may not always mesh, change is inevitable. We truly want our student athletes to have an enjoyable experience that they can look back on fondly. Obviously there are times we have not provided such an experience, but our ultimate goal is to attempt to do what is best for all the student athletes in each program.
“We are excited about the coaches we have in place and look forward to their success. They all need the continued positive support of our school and community to ensure that success.”
It’s Willmore’s hope, along with the rest of Warren County sports fans, that the WCHS athletic department will soon be called something drastically different in the coming years – sound, synched and successful.