It certainly was the most demanding.
After losing the top two scorers on a team expected to take another shot at the state title seven games into the season, Rutledge and the Lady Devils turned to Plan B. They went 23-11 and got all the way to the Class 1A Final Four.
Given that backdrop, was there really any other choice for The Star’s area girls basketball coach of the year?
“I would have to say it was the best (coaching job he’s done) because of what we had to deal with, everything that went along with it,” Rutledge said.
“It was not an easy season. What we accomplished was great. Just to get back to the Final Four after all that happened was a big accomplishment for us.”
This was expected to be a big year for the Lady Purple Devils. Rutledge was returning all but one starter from a team that went to the Final Four in 2011, and he was planning for the youngest players he had to learn from the veterans in order to perpetuate the tradition.
And it was good early. Then they lost seniors Madison Oliver and Emily Church to knee injuries three minutes apart in the same game.
Rutledge turned to J.J. Looney and Kailey Echols to pick up the offensive slack, but overlooked in the recovery was the play of point guard Kia Lindsay, all of a sudden in charge of running the team; Leah Byers, returning after not playing the year before; and freshman Belle McKinney.
It took about a week and a half to get over the enormity of what happened, but together they stayed on for the full ride on the emotional roller coaster and ultimately beat Collinsville and Gaston in the Northeast Regional before losing to Holy Spirit in the state semifinals 51-34.
“To be honest, there was a lot of doubt,” Rutledge said. “Not in my case, but in the community, outside of our basketball team, because losing two players like that, they say there’s 30 points a game down the drain.
“It was rough for them. We just needed to play games. We basically put everything we had on the defensive end and went with it. They bought into what we were doing. We just kept working and working and working and finally it clicked.”
That came in the area championship game when they beat host Gaston. They led by 18 at one point in the game, then withstood a charge in which the home got within two. At that point, they regained their poise and, over the next 90 seconds, stretched the lead back to a comfortable 10.
“We just basically played lights-out,” Rutledge said. “When they figured out how to win, that they could win, that was all we needed. In their mind, they could win, they were good enough to win and play with anybody who stepped on the floor with them in 1A basketball. That’s what I needed them to understand.”
Al Muskewitz is a sports writer for The Star. Reach him at 256-235-3577.