RUTLEDGE – Probably the toughest question that could be asked when looking at the 2020-21 Grainger Lady Grizzlies basketball team is who was their best player?
With a team stacked top to bottom with as much talent as Grainger had and with players who knew their roles and were willing to accept them, it’s impossible to look at the team and point to one single person as to who is on top. For the three Lady Grizzles seniors- Lauren Longmire, Tori Rutherford and Matty Tanner- that’s just the way they wanted it.
While some teams could be slowed or stopped by shutting down one player, that wasn’t the case with Grainger. A team clogs up the middle to stop Longmire from dominating inside? No problem, she will just kick it out to Rutherford or Tanner who drained a three. A team plays on the perimeter to stop the onslaught of three’s? No problem, Rutherford or Tanner would feed the ball inside to Longmire who had a field day around the hoop. If any of the three seniors were having offensive woes or were in foul trouble, it was no sweat for Grainger as juniors Audrey Stratton, Alia Maloney, Sydnie Hayes or Millie Hurst seemed to be able to hit from anywhere on the court.
Yes, Grainger was a deep and talented team but everyone knew who the leaders were.
Tanner, Longmire and Rutherford etched their names in the history books at Grainger and now, they can add another honor to a long list that already exists as the senior trio have been named the Citizen Tribune Lakeway Players of the Year.
Grainger enjoyed the best season in school history as they played all the way to the state championship game and finished the year with a stunning 35-4 record. It was the culmination of a journey for Tanner, Longmire and Rutherford that started years ago when they were playing in elementary school. All three players said to be able to go this far and to do something all teams aspire to do- play on the final day of the season on a March Saturday in Murfreesboro- was a dream come true.
“It was the best feeling I’ve ever had,” Longmire said when reflecting on the Lady Grizzlies magical run to the title game. “Playing with your very best friends for however many years we have, it been our goal since we were little, to play for a state championship. Just to make it there, especially in our last year playing together, it just felt great.”
Longmire said that while she and her two senior mates were recognized as the leaders, the rest of the squad bought into the team-first attitude. “Our offense was doing very well, especially at the end of the season, because we all knew that no one had go out and do too much. Everyone had a role and we knew our role and we knew we were going to win the games and were satisfied with that because we knew everyone was doing what they needed to do.”
“We had talked about at the start of the season how it was going to be sad once it was over but we just wanted to play every night we had with each other,” Tanner said. “I played with Tori and Lauren since I was little but I had also played with Audrey and Millie and few more so we knew it would be sad when it was over but we just enjoyed every minute we had. We all had fun. We had a great season but I think what we will remember the most is the relationship we all had with each other. We were all best friends and there was never a dull moment. The thing we will remember the most will be the people we were around and how much fun we had together.”
Rutherford echoed her teammates’ sentiments. “It was a dream come true. Its bitter-sweet because we wanted to have a great season but we knew that eventually we would play our last game together. That game was in the state championship and while it’s sad the way that ended, we are off to bigger things next year.”
One of the key moments of the season for the Lady Grizzlies, according to Rutherford, didn’t come in any of the 35 wins but instead of one of the three regular season losses. “At the first of the year, we struggled offensively as no one was playing well but later in the season, we played Bearden and even though we wound up losing that game, after that I felt like we stepped up and learned that in certain situations we had to get the ball to certain players to score. The juniors found their role and even though they might not play well on offense every night, they can always play defense. I was proud of everyone with how things eventually ended.”
The final horn sounded at Murphy Center back in March and there was disappointment for the Lady Grizzlies as they fell 11 points short of a state championship. Yes, the tears fell. That time of sadness was only for a moment, however, as the smiles started to come across the faces of the three Grainger seniors when they reflected on all they had accomplished. All three scored over 1,000 points in their career. All three are playing collegiate basketball next year (Rutherford at Carson-Newman, Tanner at Walters State and Longmire at Milligan). All three were part of a 118-23 Grainger record over the past four seasons. All three were willing to share with their teammates the pressure of high expectations which had built going into last season and all three responded in kind. Most importantly, all three have cemented their legacy as being mentioned in the conversation of the best players the Lakeway area has ever produced.