Rutland might have the quietest practices of any girls basketball team in the state.
The lack of sound is a product of head coach Johnny Dixon.
The Lady Canes work. They work hard each day on fundamentals, and they work quietly.
Dixon, the only head coach the program has ever known, doesn’t raise his voice often. To call him quiet would be an understatement.
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“He is very calm, always has been,” longtime assistant Amanda Maddox said. “He’s actually made me a lot calmer, if that’s possible. But everyone respects him, and he really doesn’t have to get loud.”
Instead, Dixon has looks like the one he issued at Tuesday’s practice when, while leaning against a ball rack, an errant pass hit the front of the ball rack sending a ball loose from the rack. He never moved, just stood and stared.
“Oh, ‘the look’ is a lot scarier than when he raises his voice,” senior Tae Smith said. “You don’t want ‘the look.’ You know you’ve done wrong when you get that.”
Dixon’s calm demeanor and steady hand have helped lead Rutland to the first Final Four appearance at the Macon Coliseum by a Bibb County program since 2002, a year prior to Rutland even opening. Westside has been to two Final Fours during that time but has played the games in Duluth. Rutland plays Carrollton at 4 p.m. on Friday at the Coliseum.
“I’m excited because I know how hard they’ve worked to get here,” Bibb County athletics director Raynette Evans said. “But I’m most proud of Coach Dixon, because I know what he’s done to get them to this point. I know how hard he has worked, how much he has put into this program.”
Dixon doesn’t have to be loud because he is an observer. He watches, thinks and plans.
He had quiet confidence in his team’s press break prior to its quarterfinal matchup with Kendrick, a team he’d never seen before. But the Cherokees’ reputation as having one of the best pressure defenses in the state made it a tough preparation for any coach. But Rutland didn’t struggle much at all with the pressure because of Dixon’s scheme.
“We’ll be sitting at a game, and he’ll say what will happen next,” Maddox said. “He’s always right. He just sees the game a different way, and that’s why he’s had success.”
Dixon already had a familiar name when he arrived in Macon.
He led a competitive Twiggs County program for more than a decade, leading the Lady Cobras to the 1986 Final Four.
“We got into the game, and my (post player) got into foul trouble,” Dixon said of the semifinal contact. “It was a good experience and exciting, but it didn’t turn out well, and we lost to Taylor County.”
Evans hired Dixon to serve as an assistant coach at Central, before moving him to Southeast as the head girls coach in 1997.
Dixon an Maddox, who went to work for Dixon right out of college, made the Warriors competitive, but they never able to do much better than .500 because too many players left through the magnet system to the more established programs in the county.
“That (Southeast) job was a tough one to take,” Evans said. “He was losing players through the (magnet system) to other schools. But he never complained once. He worked as hard as he could, and there was no doubt who would get the Rutland job when the school opened.”
But Dixon had to start from scratch when he got to Rutland. He didn’t know how long it would take before the Lady Hurricanes would be competitive.
They won four games the first year in 2003-2004 and five games the second year.
Dixon, however, knew help was on the way.
The Rutland Middle School team featured some of the best up-and-coming talent in the area and won two consecutive Bibb County championships. Dixon knew his program’s foundation would be based on those teams.
“I knew the future was bright, but we had to take some lumps to get there,” he said.
Smith and Kendra Grant formed the backbone of those middle school teams and helped turn around the high school program’s fortunes immediately.
Rutland went from five wins to 12 during the current senior class’ freshman season. Of the team’s 14 losses, only two came by more than 10 points.
For Dixon, the promise of a bright future was exciting. Not everyone was happy.
“I really don’t like losing, and we didn’t lose in middle school,” Smith said. “So I was pretty upset. Our goal was the same from the start — to win a state title. Any time we don’t, we are disappointed.”
The next season, Rutland went 23-4, won its first regular-season region title and made its first state playoff appearance. The Lady Hurricanes lost by three points in the first round at home to Fannin County.
“At the time, Fannin County had been to the Coliseum a lot, and I told the coach after the game that I wanted my program to be like Fannin County’s,” Dixon said. “I wanted to be in that position each year.”
Rutland got closer in 2007-08, when it went 27-2 and finished undefeated in region play. But there was another disappointing end to the season when the Lady Hurricanes lost to Buford in the second round.
“I just remember how disappointed we were,” Smith said. “We worked so hard and then lost. It’s tough to take.”
Rutland played a tougher summer schedule in 2008, hoping to prepare itself for a deeper run in the playoffs. The players maintained the goal of winning the state championship.
“My goal is to compete in every game, play as hard as we can and when it’s over, it’s over,” Dixon said. “The team came up with the goal of winning a state championship. It’s not my goal, but I do remind them every day that it’s their goal.”
Things hit a snag, however, when the Lady Hurricanes lost in the region tournament and were forced to go on the road in the playoffs for the first time. They beat Liberty County by one point and then beat Westover by three points. On Saturday, Rutland defeated Kendrick by three points to advance to the Final Four. But in all of those games, Dixon kept the same facial expression — no worries, always focused.
“I think I saw him jump up when we won our first region title,” Maddox said. “He shows his emotions more in recent years, but he stays pretty steady.”
That steadiness will be needed Friday when Rutland steps on to the biggest stage in the program’s history.
“Me and (Grant) were at Kroger the other day, and strangers were coming up to congratulate us,” Smith said. “It’s a pretty good feeling that the community is behind us and supporting us.”
Dixon said he wants his team to enjoy the experience to play at the Coliseum, but he also wants his players to avoid distractions. He wants them to focus on Carrollton and the task at hand.
He just won’t raise his voice about it.