GAUTIER -- Lafayette Rutledge didn't receive a single Division I college scholarship offer after his senior year at Gautier.
Despite holding a number of Division II offers, Rutledge had a burning dream to play at college's highest level. To keep his dream alive, he eschewed the four-year Division II offers and signed with Southwest Mississippi Community College where, this year, he helped lead to the Bears to their first state junior college crown in 53 years.
His gamble paid off on Thursday.
Rutledge became the 16th Keith McQueen-coached player to sign a Division I scholarship offer, signing to play with Nicholls State.
"Ever since I was eight years old, I've always had it in my head to play Division I basketball," said Rutledge, who represented Mississippi at the Elks Regional Hoop Shoot in the 10-11 year-old age group. "I would watch college basketball on TV and I would see all these guys and I believed I was just as good or better than they were."
McQueen said a major reason Rutledge (5-11, 175) wasn't able to find a Division I suitor after 2014 was his size. He said he has coached only one other player under six feet tall who signed a Division I scholarship: Adrian Breaux, who signed with Southeast Louisiana.
"Very few people under six feet tall get the chance," McQueen said. "It's extremely difficult to get looked at (by major college programs if you are under six feet tall)."
When Rutledge graduated, McQueen said all his college contacts were looking for big men.
"I had over 20 guys look at him," he said. "But they were all looking for bigs, either centers or a tall wing player."
So Rutledge went to junior college, hoping he could get a second chance at Division I in two years with no promises the Division II offers would still be on the table.
"I was going to do whatever it was going to take," Rutledge said. "My gamble played off. You never give up on your dream, no matter what. You always do what it takes."
McQueen said Rutledge's drive to succeed provides his current team an ongoing example with Rutledge coming home for Christmas and summer breaks and working out in Gautier's gym.
"He's here from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., always working on his game or in the weight room," McQueen said, calling him one of the favorite players he's ever coached. "He's a very positive influence on our team."
At Southwest Mississippi, Rutledge averaged 13.8 points per game and was the second leading scorer for the Bears. His 42.8 percent shooting average from outside the arc was the seventh-highest 3-point percentage in the nation and his 71 3-pointers were the most in the state.
"I can pretty much score from anywhere on the court," Rutledge said. "I have very deep range."
However, Rutledge said his game was not limited to shots behind the arc.
"I have the intelligence that I can also play point guard and facilitate others (scoring) and control the tempo of the game," he said, adding he likes the shooting guard role better. "I'm more of a shooting guard. I like to put the ball in the basket."
In a statement released by Nicholls State, Colonels head coach Richie Riley said Rutledge's long-range shooting skills will help his team.
"(Rutledge) is a high-level shooter," Riley said. "He has a quick trigger with deep range. I love that he can not only catch and shoot, but also create space to make shots off the dribble."
While Rutledge had looks from programs like Texas Tech, Marist, and Drexel, he said he liked Nicholls State.
"There's a new coaching staff, and I really liked Coach Riley," he said. "I feel that it's the right place for me and I can play right away."
Turn things around
While Rutledge has known success at Gautier, leading the Gators to the playoffs his junior and senior years, and Southwest Mississippi, the Colonels are looking to turn things around. After going 24-6 in 1994-1995, the Colonels have only two winning seasons since then, although the 1998 squad made the NCAA tournament with a 19-10 mark and the 2009 team finished with a 20-11 mark. Last year, though, Nicholls State finished ninth in the Southland Conference with an overall mark of 10-19.
"I plan to lead them to a conference championship and the NCAA tournament," Rutledge said. "We have a new coach who is bringing new confidence to the team. You can't do anything about last year. You can only control what happens next season."
Away from the court, Rutledge's resume lists some impressive accomplishments, including a 3.8 GPA and induction to the Southwest Mississippi Academic Hall of Fame. As a sophomore, he was one of 12 students to be named honorable mention for the Haier Ultimate Achievement Award, an award that recognizes off-the-field achievements in college sports, which was won by Georgia wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell.
"We preach constantly that you can do something if you work hard in the classroom and on the floor," McQueen said, adding that Rutledge proves the truth of that philosophy.