PORT ANGELES — Ryan Rutherford has spent a lot of time in the background during his basketball career.
The Sequim Middle School varsity basketball coach wouldn’t have him as an eighth grader.
The Sequim High School ‘C’ team coach wouldn’t play him as a freshman.
And Brian Roper, the Wolves’ varsity coach at the time, wouldn’t even notice him until he grew eight inches between his sophomore and junior years.
Even then, it wasn’t until his senior season with the Wolves that he became the star; a first-team All-Nisqually League shooting guard capable of scoring 20 points in a night.
And he didn’t exactly light up the gym during his first stint with Peninsula College.
So when Pirates coach Peter Stewart approached Rutherford about taking one last crack at basketball — three years removed from a freshman season where he pulled mostly mop-up duty — he didn’t hesitate.
The 22-year-old shooting guard with a herky-jerky game and an unwavering confidence channeled his poker roots and went all in. After all, he was down to his last hand.
“I didn’t necessarily know I would be starting, but I just came in with a different attitude,” said Rutherford of his second go-around with the Pirates.
“It was kind of more of the attitude that I would be a starter and that I would be a top-level player.
“There was no point in coming back for me just to have another mediocre season, then go get a job. I really wanted to see how good I could play and if I could play at the next level.”
In terms of this year’s Pirates, nobody was more valuable than Rutherford.
The team’s top scorer (17.8 points per game) and playmaker (3.6 assists per game) is one of the main reasons Peninsula (10-6 in North, 13-12 overall) is revisiting the NWAACC tournament in Kennewick after a one-year hiatus.
Voted a first-team All-North Division player along with 24-year-old teammate Jason Gamblin, Rutherford seemingly willed his team to wins on several occasions.
Be it his 41-point game against Olympic, his 30 points and overtime-forcing shot at home against Everett and or his near triple double (10 points, 11 assists, 9 rebounds) on the road versus Everett.
“There’s guys that will take shots, but Ryan wants his to go in,” Stewart said. “You have to want to shoot it, and he wants to shoot it.
“He wants to beat you. He’s a competitor.”
That was more than apparent during his high school days.
The story Roper likes to bring up the most didn’t even come in a varsity game.
Playing against another high school at a team summer camp, Rutherford broke his right front tooth in half diving for a ball.
Rather than check himself out of the game, however, he just placed his broken tooth on the scorer’s table and played out the final five minutes.
“That’s in a summer camp game,” said Roper, who now coaches the Lynden Lyons in the Northwest Conference. “That says something about the type of player he is.
“He’s a guy that just made himself into a player getting into the gym, developing a variety of moves.”
Much of his stop-and-start game, which includes a variety of head fakes, pivots, pull-up jumpers and jump stops, was actually developed while playing against his brother D.J.
Six years D.J.’s junior, Ryan was forced to come up with unorthodox ways to get his shot off in driveway one-on-one games as a kid.
That’s where shots like his double-pivot, pump fake jumper against Everett — the one that sent the game into overtime — come from.
“When he is in balance he is very solid, and he creates enough of his own shots from not what I would call classic positions,” Stewart said.
“He can get his shot off in a lot of different ways: Going left, pivoting, double pivoting in the post, in traffic against bigs, he’ll score in transition, he’ll score coming off screens, he’ll score with the ball or without the ball.”
Indeed, Rutherford is good at seeing all the angles.
For a time, he helped support himself by playing poker on-line and in casinos.
He moved to Las Vegas with a friend after his freshman year in 2008, playing in Texas Hold ’em tournaments and cash games.
After a bad run of cards — “I lost with aces six times in one week,” he said — he had to take on another job.
All the while, Rutherford developed his “scorer’s mentality” in high-level Sin City pickup games that included a few fringe NBA players.
Once he moved back to the North Olympic Peninsula eight months later, his game was stronger than when he left.
Stewart approached him in the Peninsula College gym not too long after that and asked whether he wanted to come back.
“Quite honestly it was probably a very good thing at the time for Ryan to go out and figure out how to play at a different level,” Stewart said.
“When he said he wanted to come back, we had a good conversation. I thought he approached it mentally in the right way and had grown up.
“He knew what I expected and what I liked and didn’t like, and he’s done an outstanding job coming back.
“He’s obviously gotten a lot more confident.”That confidence just might take him to the next level, again.