Deep community roots made this team a family — and one for the ages

-Messenger photo by Britt Kudla
Pocahontas Area celebrate a win over Sioux Center during Class 3A Championship on Saturday

-Messenger photo by Britt Kudla Pocahontas Area celebrate a win over Sioux Center during Class 3A Championship on Saturday

DES MOINES — When her high school career officially ended and there was nothing left to do but celebrate, Elle Ruffridge exhaled and looked down at her Pocahontas Area uniform.

”There were so many things going through my mind at once,” said Ruffridge, the state’s all-time five-player scoring queen who had just helped the Indians to their second consecutive Class 3A title at Wells Fargo Arena. ”It was a whirlwind of emotions. We were excited to celebrate being back-to-back state champs, but it also hit us: this is our last game side-by-side as Indians. The last time on this court. The last time on this stage.

”It’s something we’ll never forget, but it’s also hard to let go.”

When Ruffridge went to take off her No. 5 jersey — the one she had played 109 games in, scored a record 2,951 points in, dished out a record 802 assists in, sank a record 466 three-point baskets in — for the last time, she hesitated.

”I didn’t want to do it,” Ruffridge admitted. ”Honestly, I stopped and kissed it.”

This was never about Ruffridge. She always appreciated the individual attention, but tried her best to shy away from it — especially if she saw the balance tipping in her direction and away from the program.

Basketball is a team sport. Ruffridge is the epitome of a team player. And Pocahontas Area reigned supreme, as a team, here on Saturday night.

Again.

Together.

”This entire journey is about an amazing group of girls — not me,” Ruffridge said. ”There are times, honestly, when I get frustrated about (the spotlight). Not because I don’t respect (the media outlets) or understand why, but there are a lot of great people with a lot of incredible talents on this team. They’re more than worthy of being recognized and featured as well. I’m not a one-person show. If I tried, there would be no championships, no state tournament trips — nothing.

”I’m just thankful I come from Pocahontas. We love each other and have for a long time. It’s real. It’s sincere.”

The squad made its way back to the Fairfield Inn in West Des Moines afterward. ”Same hotel and same rooms — down to the number” as last season, Ruffridge added in a measure of superstition. Despite being together virtually every single day for the last four months — or four years, or even well over a decade, for that matter — they weren’t ready, or even interested, in going their separate ways.

”We’re excited to just hang out, order food and talk. Really enjoy the time we still have with each other,” Ruffridge said. ”The (nine) seniors (Ruffridge, twins Faith and Grace Meyer, Payton Hjerleid, Olivia Ahlers, Ashlyn Weidauer, Kenzie Sullivan, Danielle Neumann and Bailey Vainreb) got together in the hotel (on Saturday morning) and had a bonding moment. We started talking about ‘lasts,’ but didn’t get very far. We just didn’t want to think about it.

”(Win or lose), we didn’t want it to end.”

The 2017 Indians are in the history books now as a record-shattering, iconic group. Their identity isn’t strictly aligned with the numbers or the titles, though. They didn’t become the talk of the tournament solely because of their ability, or even because Ruffridge checked off milestones with what seemed to be every flick of her shooting wrist.

They resonated with fans from across Iowa and even transcended the trophies of the elite because of their collective personality and likeability. And, as Ruffridge pointed out, ”you can’t fake that. People connect with it.”

”With us, what you see is what you get,” Ruffridge said. ”This is why I feel like communities from small towns do it best down here. Where you come from matters, and Pocahontas is truly a special town. We are who we are as a team because of who they are back home.”

That’s why it’s difficult for Ruffridge and her fellow seniors to say goodbye. Not because the star treatment is ending. Not because the media stops following their every move. Not because they are prima donnas or divas or anything the fame could’ve easily created.

Because they’re deeply rooted in a program and a community they will be leaving soon.

They’ll go, but won’t soon be forgotten — and won’t ever forget.

”We’ll still be Indians,” Ruffridge concluded. ”More than anything, that’s who we are. We’re family. Always.”

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net

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