Jessie Ruffner emerges for Smith College during its run to NCAA Tournament

  • Jessie Ruffner, left, of Smith College, drives to the basket against Sarosha Parsons, of Franklin & Marshall, Dec. 30, 2019, during the Smith Holiday Tournament at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 3/4/2020 7:11:03 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When the buzzer sounded on Smith College’s 70-56 win over MIT in the NEWMAC Tournament women’s basketball championship this past Sunday, the arena was filled with a palpable sense of excitement. Fans and players flooded the court, as the Pioneers celebrated their first title in program history.

At the epicenter of it all was Smith guard Jessie Ruffner, the uber-competitive, high-scoring freshman from Rocklin, California. Ruffner, the Pioneers’ leading scorer during the tournament, played a key role in the victory, providing 15 points as well as a game-high four steals.

Her outstanding performances throughout each of the three playoff games led the freshman to be named the most outstanding player of the tournament.

“We’re fortunate that her career’s just beginning here,” coach Lynn Hersey said after the game. “She’s a baller, she has great instincts, she’s fearless and she plays hard.”

Ruffner has emerged as an integral piece for the Pioneers, since being thrust into a starting role halfway through the regular season following an injury to Ally Yamada.

Ruffner’s development from a young, inexperienced role player into a key starter and offensive playmaker has led to one of the most successful campaigns in program history.

As someone who models her game after NBA star Russell Westbrook, Ruffner has used her ability to score both in the paint and behind the arc, in addition to her athleticism, as tools to become a versatile threat on each end of the court.

As her minutes have increased, Ruffner has continually rose to the challenge. She ranks near the top of the team in multiple categories, including points, steals and assists per game. The camaraderie within the Pioneer locker room is something Ruffner pointed to as a key factor in her development.

“I think it’s honestly that I haven’t been on a team that’s had such good team chemistry as this team,” Ruffner said. “We all know we’re family and that comes first, and we have each other’s back and that’s what has pushed us.”

Additionally, Ruffner pointed to her continued improvement on the offensive end, specifically from behind the arc, as a key catalyst in her breakout season.

“It’s something that’s been hit or miss over the past few years in high-school, but I’ve been able to add it back to my game,” she said.

Although she had not expected to play such an important role this early in her career, it is something she has continually worked to take full advantage of throughout the year.

“Jessie has done a great job stepping up in her playing time and becoming an offensive threat for us,” junior captain Elle Jo Whalen said. “She’s really made an impact.”

The journey to this point for the California native has been in the making for quite a while.

“Basketball has always been an important part of my life,” said Ruffner, who has been playing the sport since she was 5.

Ruffner, who had always known she wanted to play at the collegiate level, quickly identified Smith as a place where she could make an impact.

“I wanted to go to a school that would challenge me academically and challenge me athletically and Smith has had a really successful program in the years before,” she said.

Jen MacAulay, assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for the Pioneers, identified Ruffner as someone who could play an influential role for Smith.

“Something that we were definitely looking for in that class was guards who could get to the rim and score and she definitely had that mentality,” said MacAulay, who previously served a similar role at UMass.

MacAulay, now in her fifth season with the Pioneers, was confident that Ruffner could eventually play a prominent role for the team.

“Just with her physicality and her size, I think we knew she could compete; especially with the guards in our conference,” said MacAulay.

Smith was expected to struggle this season following the departure of seven key players from a team that reached the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

“We lost 70 percent of almost every offensive category and defensive rebounding from last year’s team,” said Hersey, now in her 13th year with the Pioneers.

Despite limited expectations at the beginning of the season, the continued emergence of Ruffner as well as Smith’s other young players has resulted in a 24-win campaign, highlighted by the first NEWMAC title in program history.

“It wasn’t something we were expecting ... but coach has said ‘Why not us?’ and I think we’ve just kept with that mentality,” Ruffner said.

Smith will have a chance to add to its already historic season this Friday, when they take on DeSales University in the first round of the NCAA Division III Tournament at SUNY New Paltz.

If Smith is to continue its run of success, Ruffner is one of multiple underclassmen who will continue to have to play a big role for the Pioneers on both ends of the court.

“They’re going to have to play a big part in it,” said MacAulay, “Obviously, they’ve played a ton of minutes up to this point and played in some pretty big games. So, we’re hoping that experience can carry over.”

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