The Lady Panthers all but owned the Lady Purple Devils in softball until last year, when Ragland downed Spring Garden twice on its way to a Class 1A state softball crown. Spring Garden ended Ragland’s season in two of three straight trips to the Northeast Regional in basketball prior to this weekend.
This past Friday, the Lady Purple Devils finally got over the maroon and gold hump on the hardwood, defeating Spring Garden 54-42 at Jacksonville State University’s Pete Mathews Coliseum to advance to the state semifinals. They’ll face McIntosh at 3 p.m. today at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex with a shot to play for a state title on the line.
“It boosted our confidence a lot. Spring Garden’s been to Birmingham every year since except ’09,” said Ragland guard Emily Church, referring to the Lady Panthers’ eight appearances in nine seasons from 2002-2010.
Now, the ninth-ranked Purple Devils, equipped with a core of talent that’s been together for four years, feel poised to upset No. 2 McIntosh, the team Spring Garden defeated to capture its most recent state title in 2008.
The Lady Purple Devils got beyond the semifinals of the regional tournament for the first time under coach Rush Rutledge with a 59-51 win against Collinsville this past Tuesday. But the win didn’t come without any drama. Ragland nearly allowed a 15-point victory to slip away before rallying late.
They played inspired ball from start to finish against Spring Garden, the state’s fourth-ranked team.
“We battled and got that first-round monkey off our back then came out against Spring Garden very focused,” Rutledge said. “That was the best game we’ve played all year.”
Ragland (27-4) knows it will have to put forth a similar effort in order to defeat McIntosh.
The Lady Demons are riding a 33-game winning-streak heading into the contest. Their lone loss came in the season-opener against Class 4A Jackson. They defeated third-ranked Brantley 60-50 in the South Regional final to advance.
“They’re very fast and very athletic and they’ve got a 6-foot-3, 6-4 girl down in the post,” Rutledge said. “They’ve been here and we haven’t. They’re going to try to take it to us.”
Rutledge had his team tour the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame shortly after checking into their hotel in downtown Birmingham Monday afternoon, taking a glimpse of the state’s most historic athletic figures before embarking on a chance to make a little history of their own this afternoon.
He also took them to the BJCC to get a view of the venue where they’ll play the most important basketball game of their careers.
“I took them over there early to get the shock out of the way. So they could get a feel for how big the place is. It’s huge. There’s 500 feet from the basket to the seats,” Rutledge said.
The Purple Devils have been properly prepped to face a team such as McIntosh, which is seeking to earn its third state title since 2006. This season alone they’ve faced Class 5A Etowah and Springville, Class 4A Oneonta and Class 3A Ashville, who reached the regional tournament three times.
Against Spring Garden, they held the Lady Panthers scoreless in the third quarter to seize control of the game.
Rutledge said if his team can handle the pressure of the moment and their opposition like they did against Spring Garden, they could have a chance.
“It would be really, really big,” Church said. “We’d do anything for a basketball ring, especially since we think we have a really good chance to win it again in softball.”
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575. Follow him on Twitter @birds_word.