Ragland finds way to get to state tournament
by Nick Birdsong
nbirdsong@annistonstar.com
Feb 28, 2012 | 2234 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The opening stanzas of the late great American poet Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son” speaks to Ragland’s girls basketball team’s path to the AHSAA Final 48 this past season.

Their journey, in the words of Hughes, “ain’t been no crystal stair.”

The Lady Purple Devils (23-10) will face Holy Spirit (31-1), ranked No. 2 in the final Alabama Sports Writers Association poll, at 9 a.m. today in the Class 1A state semifinals at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.

“This year has been a little harder,” said Ragland coach Rush Rutledge, who led the Lady Purple Devils to the state tournament a year ago. “We’ve lost some people due to injury and we’ve had to struggle.”

By the eighth game of the season,

Ragland was without the services of two starters. Madison Oliver, who was averaging 12 points a game early in the season, went down with a torn MCL and a strained ACL, and Emily Church was sidelined with a torn ACL. Church, an honorable mention to the all-state team last season, was putting up 18 points a game before her injury.

“To be honest, I didn’t think we’d be here,” sophomore Kailey Echols said of her thoughts at the time. “But we’re here now and I’m excited.”

The 5-foot-10 forward is one of the biggest reasons the Lady Purple Devils will take the floor today. She scored a game-high 27 points on 11-for-16 shooting to go along with nine rebounds, four steals and three blocks in Ragland’s 53-36 victory against Area 11 foe Gaston in the Northeast Regional final.

Holy Spirit advanced with a 55-50 win against Akron in the Central Regional tournament at Alabama State University. The Lady Titans are riding an 18-game winning streak, coming into today’s matchup.

Rutledge said its taken all-season for the Lady Purple Devils to regain the confidence and consistency they had early in the season with their full compliment of players.

“They didn’t say it,” Rutledge said. “But you could tell they were nervous.”

Junior Leah Byers, who didn’t even play basketball last season, and freshman Belle McKinney filled the vacancies left by Oliver and Church in the starting lineup.

Both were key factors in the Lady Purple Devils’ victory against Gaston, a team which had defeated them by 18 and 24 points in the regular season, this past Saturday. Byers pulled down seven rebounds as Ragland won the battle on the glass 49-29. McKinney also snatched down seven boards, including six on the offensive end, and added 12 points in 29 minutes of action.

“We just kept working, kept working, kept working,” Rutledge said. “We’re playing our best ball at the right time.”

Oliver was cleared to play just before the regional tournament but only saw time in spots in Jacksonville. Church, who was named The Star’s Area Softball Player of the Year after helping lead the Lady Purple Devils to a second-straight state championship, is set to return to the diamond in mid-March.

“It feels great to be out there with my team again,” Oliver said. “I’m a little hesitant but I’ve got to get over that because I know my knee is better. I just don’t want to hurt it again.”

Rutledge admitted it took his team a few minutes to get over the shellshock of a playing in a venue so large at last year’s state tournament where they were lost 46-44 to McIntosh.

That experience, combined with all they’ve overcome this year, has given them a calm, carefree reserve as they march toward a title this season.

“We’re going to fight, scrap and challenge them,” Rutledge said. “We’ve got nothing to lose. We’ve got one of the worst records in 1A down there. We’re just going to down there and try to win one.”

Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575. Follow him on Twitter @birds_word.