The advice outlived the man, sadly, just as surely as it will outlast Amanda Ruffner’s basketball career.
Trite but true. Simple but sincere. Meant for young ears but worth remembering further down the line, when the game grows so much more serious, so much more difficult.
It came from Amanda’s first coach, who also happened to be her dad, Bob. Whenever he gathered his AAU team, the Southern Ohio Magic, around him — whether the players were in third grade or seventh, or somewhere in between — he would always say the same thing, Amanda recalled, right before breaking the huddle: Play hard, work hard and have fun.
It sustains Fairmont State’s senior forward now as much as it did then. Maybe more so, since Bob, a long-time teacher and coach, died of a stroke in 2008 at 58.
Enjoy it, he was saying. Make the most of it. Because it won’t always be there.
It has become especially relevant these days to Ruffner, with her career dwindling down to a few months. She is, in fact, one of five senior starters for the Fighting Falcons, who were picked by the Mountain East Conference’s coaches to win the league in their preseason poll.
They were 3-2 heading into Wednesday’s game at Wheeling Jesuit, and host West Liberty Saturday on ASN. And the 5-10 Ruffner continues to set the tone in any number of ways — notably by scoring 17.4 points a night, third in the conference and tops on a team that has three others averaging in double figures — but also by heeding her dad’s long-ago advice, and passing it along.
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“Especially my senior year here,” she said, “I always try to tell myself and my teammates before we walk on the court, ‘Have fun — play with passion, play hard, but free your mind.’ Ultimately I get the honor every day of stepping on the court with four of my other best friends and 11 people that I consider sisters, not just teammates.”
Her voice caught as she uttered that last sentence as she realized, no doubt, how short her time is. That it’s always short, really.
More often she has a smile on her face, a wisecrack at the ready.
“I love to make people laugh, love to make people smile,” she said. “Sometimes I think my sense of humor might not come out in the best of times, but I definitely like to keep a smile on all my teammates’ faces.”
But when Fairmont coach Steve McDonald was asked to give examples of the comic relief Ruffner provides, he hesitated.
“Any examples that you could print, probably not,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ve been known to use sarcasm on occasion. Amanda has attached herself to that sarcasm, if you will. She has a very, very dry sense of humor.”
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Then he launched into a story, one that showed not so much how amusing Ruffner is as to what lengths she will go to lift up a teammate, to help the team function smoothly. The Falcons were doing a rebounding drill in practice recently, and while it was clear to McDonald that Ruffner could have beaten a teammate to the glass, she chose not to.
“It had to do with who the other player was,” he said.
McDonald and Ruffner made eye contact when the drill was over.
“She knew I knew she let the other player get the rebound,” he said.
Ruffner filled in the blanks, saying the player in question was senior point guard Gabrielle Etter.
And, Ruffner said, Etter “was having a bit of a tough time. I’m a little bit bigger than G is, and I just felt bad. I couldn’t do it. I was going in for the rebound and she had to box me out. I may or may not have just let that one slide. … I may or may not have just let her get the better of me on that one.”
Her own career has been a study in determination, a testament not only to her dad but her mother, Teresa, a colon cancer survivor. She is, Amanda said, “the strongest person I know.”
Coming out of Proctorville, Ohio, Amanda redshirted a year and then inched up the bench the next two, finally emerging as a starter and 15.4 point-per-game scorer last season, when she was an All-MEC second-teamer.
Now she just wants to leave ’em laughing.
No rush on the leaving part, though.
“As much as we may complain about how our bodies hurt and we may not always want to wake up to go to practice,” she said, “I would absolutely, 110 percent, do it all over again, if I could. … If I could have my five years over again, I’d play ‘til the day I just couldn’t move anymore.”
Because when it comes down to it, her dad was right: The game is a hoot. Every bit of it.