One word can sum up the Lady Pioneers 44-41 victory against the Lady Blue Raiders Friday night in McMinnville. Validation. The win makes this Warren County High School Lady Pioneers’ basketball team the first Lady Pioneers’ team to win a home region tournament game at the “new” high school that opened in 1994 — a 27-year drought.
There has been a prevailing thought in recent years that Warren County’s Lady Pioneer basketball program was not able to be competitive. People have scratched their heads wondering what has happened to the program in the past forty something years since the Lady Pioneers won the state championship. Coaches have come and gone. Ex-players have become coaches and walked away frustrated.
The win Friday night announced a new era in Lady Pioneer basketball. The win to advance in the TSSAA Class 4A Region 3 tournament felt like the Phoenix rising from the ashes in Greek mythology. It was more than an exciting basketball game. The win against Cleveland was a turning point in Warren County sports’ history that should be a topic of conversation this weekend in every store, restaurant, church and political candidate gathering.
The Lady Pioneers had been ranked 10th in the AP 4A Prep Poll earlier this season, and they are playing like a top-10 team right now. They are one of only 32 Tennessee high school 4A girls’ basketball teams that are still playing. 32 other 4A teams had their seasons end Friday night.
Monday night, the Lady Pioneers will play the No. 3-ranked Bradley Central Lady Bears in Manchester at Coffee Central High School. Last year in the region tournament, the Lady Pioneers lost to Bradley Central 60-16 in Cleveland. For perspective on how much difference a year has made, the Lady Pioneers lost to Coffee County last year 66-22. This season, the Lady Pioneers have become increasingly competitive against the No. 5-ranked Lady Raiders from Manchester in their four games. The Lady Pioneers are capable of winning more games this season.
HEAD COACH COMMENTS
Head coach Anthony Lippe summed up his feelings about the team’s significant watershed victory after the game. Lippe said, “This team is very coachable. They just keep fighting. I will take a team like that all day long. I can teach basketball, but I cannot teach how to compete, to have that grit inside.”
The Pioneer boys’ basketball head coach was at the game, and Chris Sullens shared his thoughts on the Lady Pioneers’ gutsy victory. Sullens said, “Good to see those young ladies compete together and have a common team goal. It reminded me of early days of building a program with players buying in and just chipping away to get to that level. Very well-coached and they execute a plan. The most impressive part is seeing how the mental and physical toughness of those young ladies has developed. They just keep battling, and every time they get knocked down, they get up. You can just tell they have one goal as a group. Those type teams are so much fun to coach, and it is enjoyable to watch as a fan.”
Cleveland’s head coach, Tony Williams thought his team had opportunities Friday night against Warren County, but his sharp shooters’ shots were not falling. Williams said, “Some nights I think they just don’t go in. When you have Paige (Moody) and Milan (Williams) who usually shoot between 35% to 30% from the three…and I don’t know what they shot tonight, but it was not normal for us. It was one of those nights I guess.”
Coach Lippe was asked about Cleveland having shooting opportunities but not making shots during the game. Lippe said, “They had shots, but I felt like our girls stepped up and contested shots…made it tough, and it went our way tonight.” Lippe was asked specifically about Mia Hobbs’ performance, and he stated, “she made free throws and she did a ton of things for us tonight. I am very excited for her and our team. We have never won a region game here in this gym, Charlie Dalton.”
CLOSEUP OF LADY PIONEERS STARTING FIVE PLAYERS
The starting five for Warren County, Sable Winfree, Kyra Perkins, Mia Hobbs, Shelby Smartt and Jaden Smartt were the same five players who were in the game down the stretch in the final minutes of the game. Sable Winfree was in the game until the final 18 seconds when she fouled out. These five players made invaluable contributions during the game.
Mia Hobbs was a major disrupter in the game. Hobbs is much more than a defensive specialist, but perhaps out of necessity, she has taken on more of a defensive role late in the season for this team. Warren County lacks height, and Hobbs who is an excellent outside shooter, focused a lot of her effort on the defensive end. Friday night, Mia Hobbs created a lot of turnovers with deflected passes, steals, and she often prevented Cleveland players from penetrating the lane.
Jaden Smartt fought all night in the low post against taller and bigger Cleveland players. Smartt contributed to Cleveland’s poor shooting percentage in the game by consistently contesting shots. She is the lone senior in the starting lineup, and it was her last game in the Lady Pioneers’ home gym.
Sable Winfree said the victory will definitely give the team confidence. Winfree also said, “It was exciting. I am ready for Monday.” Last season Sable Winfree was Freshman of the Year in the team’s district. This season she was named All-District and All-District Tournament. Sable is the team’s point guard who helps the team break full-court presses and sets up the flow of the offense. She can make the three and drive to the hoop with underestimated quickness.
Winfree was asked at what point in the game she thought the Lady Pioneers could win Friday night. Winfree replied, “I thought right off the tip we were ready to go.” Sable received her third foul early in the first half, and she spent some time on the bench observing the game. When asked how it felt to sit and watch the game, Winfree said, “I was very mad.” Winfree vowed to try and not get into early foul trouble Monday night. Warren County is a different team with her in the game.
Shelby Smartt is a clutch offensive player who has been Warren County’s top scorer in several games this season. Shelby had 12 points Friday night, and she got banged up driving to the hoop many times in the game. She is capable of taking the ball from one end of the court to the other for a layup, as are many of her teammates. Smartt has an uncanny ability to make shots against taller players. She is also a solid outside threat from the 3-point line, and Shelby will often get to the foul line with her gritty determination to drive to the basket.
Kyra Perkins was the Lady Pioneers top scorer with 15 points Friday night, and she jumped center for the Pioneers at the opening tip-off. Perkins is an offensive threat who rose to the occasion Friday night. She had two 3-pointers against Cleveland, and she made plays in the low post with her superior quickness and leaping ability.
Friday night may not have been the Lady Pioneers best game of the season, but they played well enough as a team to win. Coach Sullens mentioned how much this team works toward one goal together. They can increase the speed of the game with fast breaks, and with their superior guard play, they can work the ball around the perimeter to set up plays in the half court. There are no selfish players on this team.
FOR THE RECORD…
Anthony Lippe was 2-26 in his first season as head coach at Warren County. Last season his team was 12-14. This season the Lady Pioneers are 24-7, and are playing in the second round of the region tournament. If the Lady Pioneers were a college team, their head coach would be getting a raise and an extended contract.
When I was a sports reporter for the local newspaper, I did not hear anyone predict the Lady Pioneers would become this good this fast. I often struggle to analyze a game and a team’s performance. I ask coaches after a game for their analysis. Every opposing coach I have interviewed the past two seasons has praised the Lady Pioneers and their coaching staff.
The Lady Pioneers have become an intelligent, aggressive, well-skilled and well-coached basketball team. McMinnville should take the time to soak up what this team has accomplished. The team and staff deserve some acknowledgement, a celebration, an event for making Lady Pioneer basketball competitive and successful again.
SCORE AT END OF QUARTERS:
1st Quarter: Warren County 11-9
2ND Quarter: Warren County 22-21
3rd Quarter: Warren County 37-29
WARREN COUNTY 44
WARREN COUNTY: Kyra Perkins 15, Shelby Smartt 12, Mia Hobbs 4, Sable Winfree 4, Jaden Smartt 4, Brienne Kelsey 3, Savannah Winfree 2
CLEVELAND: Lauren Hurst 15, Katie Moore 11, Addison Hurst 9, Alyssa Johnston 3, Paige Moody 3