By Sidhartha Wakade
The Lakers held a reunion in Walton County last Saturday, but not in the way most people are thinking.
To those expecting coverage of Shaq, Kobe or more recently, LeBron: it is not about those Lakers, “Showtime,” or otherwise.
The Lakers in this case were the legendary local slow-pitch women’s softball team that formed in Rutledge, Georgia in 1968 and was disbanded in 1985, not the legendary basketball team that still exists and is not connected to Morgan County.
Known in their time as the Rutledge Lakers and the Madison Lakers–named after Rutledge Lake–, the team was one of the best in the state according to Bill Wood, the former team coach. The team did a lot of travelling for tournaments, he said.
“We went to Detroit one time, New York, Pennsylvania… played in national tournaments… I enjoyed it,” Wood said.
The Lakers played a total of 1,700 games in their 18 years, according to Wood. They won 1,200 of those, and they went to three national tournaments, he said.
Jane Phelps and Sally Stephens, two former Lakers, said the team began as a way for girls to participate in sports in a time when there were no other opportunities to do so.
“Back then, there was nowhere for the girls to play anything,” Stephens said. “All my… friends who I played ball with that were boys they got their Little League uniforms and I sat over there in the stands and watched them. I didn’t like it.,” she said.
“There were no opportunities for girls,” Phelps said. “Not when we started. Not like there is now.”
Phelps played for the team for all 18 years, while Stephens joined a year after the team was formed. The Lakers were not always a competive team but grew to be one as more people joined, according to them. It began as a group of locals.
“At first they were all from around Rutledge,” Stephens said. “As time wore on, we got in folks from Monroe and Covington and some from Griffin… It became a little more competitive.”
“We would go out and look for people that were willing to come and play with us… talent that would better our team,” Phelps said.
Phelps and Stephens recounted how they won several state championships during their run, going over the ups and downs along the way.
“The very first tournament [Bill] took us to initiate us into the world we were fixing to be a part of was Satellite Beach, Florida,” Stephens said. “We drew the team that won the national championship. They just killed us. That was just a way of letting us know how hard we would have to work.”
The constant tournaments were hard work and took a lot of commitment from the players, according to Phelps and Stephens. Players had to cover travel costs, lodging costs and entry fees on their own.
“You had to pay your own way,” Stephens said. “I worked a second job umpiring at the rec department in order to have money to go do it. We had to work.”
Players also helped run concession stands at local tournaments to help pay for team expenses, according to Phelps.
“We were trying to make some money so we could turn around and spend the money,” Phelps said.
Despite the work, both enjoyed the time they spent playing.
“It was fun,” Stephens said.
The team disbanded in 1985 after a successful run, and Phelps and Stephens moved on with their lives. Both of them remained involved in softball in their own ways, however
“I umpired locally in the rec league and in the high school,” Phelps said.
“I did a little more umpiring, but I got married and had kids,” Stephens said. “Then I started coaching in the rec department.”
As for their reunion, it was simply a way to catch up after a long while, according to Wood.
“We just hadn’t seen each other in a long time,” he said. “Two of the girls that were on the initial team that was in Rutledge… Jane Phelps and Roxie Garret… came up with it, called me and asked if I could make it.”
“We were all pretty tight,” Stephens said. “We just wanted to see everybody.”
The reunion was held in Garret’s home, and about 15-20 players showed up, according to Wood and Stephens.
“Some of them I honestly didn’t recognize, they had changed so much,” Wood said. “I told them we should have had nametags,” he joked.
Most of the long-time players made it to the reunion, though some could not come because of conflicts or travel inconveniences, Phelps said. Some had passed away in the time the team had disbanded, she said.
The old team spent their time recounting stories, showing off old Lakers memorabilia and eating homemade ice cream, Stephens said. She said she would like to make Lakers reunions happen more often after the first one went so well.
“Maybe now we can find some more and do it again,” Stephens said. “Everybody that came wants to do it again.”