At first glance, Abby Rutt looks more like a high school student than a teacher. On the tennis courts during practice she could easily be mistaken for a member of the team, not the coach. With a petite frame and a nearly permanent smile, she isn’t often described as intimidating. Underestimating her as a coach, however, could be a big mistake.
In the nine seasons Rutt has been a coach, the Exeter girls’ tennis team has gone from being one of the weakest sports programs in the school district to one of the strongest tennis teams in the state.
The journey began in 2007, when Rutt filled the new assistant coach position.
“I needed a job,” Rutt says, laughing at the unglamorous start to the story. “Plus I was going back to school for teaching, it would look good on my resume, and it was kind of the same thing as teaching, coaching, so it was a good way to step into it.”
Rutt’s carefree attitude as a coach matched that of her players, even when she became the head coach in 2008.
“A lot of those girls at that point were just doing it to have fun and be part of a team. They didn’t expect to win,” Rutt said.
Not only did the players have low expectations, a lack of success throughout the program’s history had formed very low expectations for the team in general.
“I think part of it is that nobody else expected them to win, so they didn’t have that kind of motivation, so it was a little hard to motivate them to push themselves harder to get better and try to get those wins,” Rutt said.
When Rutt began coaching, the team practiced and played on courts owned by the school, but located in a neighboring community park.
“We were literally over the river and through the woods,” Rutt joked, thinking of the trek the girls had to make to get to practice each day.
On their isolated courts, the team received occasional cheers from the cross-country team passing by, but very few other spectators a part from parents. Several times the police had to be called to settle disputes happening elsewhere in the park during matches.
When Exeter made the unexpected decision to resurface the courts on the high school campus, Rutt made the decision to shift the practices and matches out of the park. While the high school only had four courts compared to the park’s five, Rutt felt the move would be beneficial for the team. While her thoughts were about safety and convenience, the move paid off in more ways than she anticipated.
“I fully believe that made a huge impact,” Rutt said emphatically. “As far as mentality, and attitude . . . and just feeling part of the school, of the whole athletic program. And having a lot more support. You have the football team walking by and their coaches are calling out to you, and field hockey. There’s so much more support and motivation, and just that sense of belonging that motivates you to want to be a good part, a successful part, of that community.”
Slowly, the team began to improve. As Rutt realized that the team could be competitive, she knew something had to change for them to succeed. That change began with her mentality. Rutt transitioned from being admittedly uncompetitive to creating what she refers to as “an expectation to win.”
“Not just that we as coaches expect you to win, or, you know, the district expects you to win, but you want the players coming into the team to already have that expectation. I’m joining this team and I expect to be a winner and I expect that I will contribute to that winning record for the team,” Rutt explained.
New players joining the team helped to bring this expectation to the players who had grown accustomed to not winning.
“It took a couple years and having one or two really strong players that brought that mentality with them, and set that example. In a lot of ways it’s easier for a player to motivate other players than it is for a coach to motivate the players, in different ways,” Rutt said.
The expectation paid off. Rutt’s proudest memory as a coach is the first Berks County Championship her team won.
“At that point, it was a huge achievement, and it was still somewhat unexpected. Very much unexpected as far as anyone else in the county went, but even as far as us, there was definitely still some part of me that didn’t quite fully believe that we could do it or would do it,” Rutt said. “To see them achieve that, and to see how excited and how happy they were just with that, not even realizing how much more they would go on to achieve.”
Now, the team boasts back-to-back county and district championships, the county and district singles champion and the county double champions. The county singles and double championship matches boasted only Exeter players. Under Rutt’s guidance, the team has gone from unnoticed to unbeatable.
“People know we have a tennis team, for one thing,” Rutt said. “People come to see our matches, which never happened, other than parents. People start following our scores in the paper.”
The team has been recognized at school board meetings and football games. They’re garnering attention for more than just their ability to win, however.
Rutt’s focus on team building and having fun has created one of the tightest teams in the school.
William Cain, Exeter High School principal, is impressed with their development as a team, more than their ability to win.
“How they all pull for each other,” Cain said, when considering what has impressed him the most. “It’s almost as if being a team is more important for them than being winners.”
With numerous players graduating this year and next, the future of the team is uncertain. Rutt takes a stance that all sports teams need to understand when faced with a rebuilding period, and she hopes their fans will understand as well.
“No one’s gonna win forever, everybody has a down year,” Rutt said, but even if the team doesn’t reach the same level of greatness, they now know what is possible and Rutt now has an expectation to win.