ALMA — Jess Rutledge still remembers when Wabaunsee football played Rossville in the fall of 2014. The result was as ugly as his memory of the game against a team about to go on a three-year streak of winning the state title. The Chargers had 15 defensive plays in the first half, and eight of them were Rossville touchdowns, digging a 56-0 hole that was impossible to climb out of.

“We showed up to that game with 15 players,” Rutledge said. “It was really bad when the head coach asked me, ‘Hey, do we have 11 on the field?’ I didn’t count the 11 on the field, I counted the four behind us. That’s not conducive to having a successful program.”

The final score was 56-8, not inciting any fonder memories. Rutledge is a “no excuses” kind of coach, so he put together a plan to get Wabaunsee back to being the solid football program it was in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s.

Rutledge, now entering his second year as the head coach, thinks the team is making strides.

“Last year we were 1-8 and it was not a great season,” Rutledge said. “We took a lot of steps in the right direction and that is hard to see for people who aren’t with those kids every day. But I feel like we put a foundation and expectation level in place and we have built on that in the time since then.”

Rutledge has made the health of his team an emphasis. In 2017, the team had a concerning amount of players knocked out of games with season-ending injuries, he said. Rutedge’s solution was installing a points system. In order for kids to earn a spot playing on Friday nights, they had to earn 55 (upped to 60 this year) points by improving their numbers in the weight room.

“I want to know that you are in shape and you are physically able to go into that game and I’m not concerned that you are going to be tired running at 60% and this kid is not and he’s running 100% and you collide and you get hurt,” Rutledge said. “My No. 1 job, ultimately, is keeping these kids safe. So I put that put system in place and it holds those kids to an accountable level that they have to get those points. We saw our injuries decrease phenomenally last year. I can’t tell you that it’s exactly because of that, but it’s those expectations that, throughout the year, we are still building toward that.”

Rutledge isn’t all talk with these results either. He’s compiled a spreadsheet that’s kept the numbers of each player’s weight room numbers at specific points during the year.

Adam Miller is the prime example. In the span of a little more than a year his squat numbers skyrocketed from 285 pounds to 425.

“He was like, ‘Oh my god, are you serious?’” Rutledge said. “But we worked on things like his form. He was one of those kids who would bend forward a little bit for his squats.”

Rutledge said there’s been two solid teams in the six years he’s coached at Wabaunsee. While it’s early and always hard to tell how a team is going to be, he said this year’s team bears some similarities to those teams.

He’s pleased with the effort and commitment he’s seen from his players since attempting a culture change within the program, and it started with his own hard work.

“As coaches, we ask so much of these kids,” Rutledge said. “‘Be at summer conditioning. Be at seven on seven. Be at practice on time. Do well in school, too.’ Well, as a coach, you also have to put in that work. They see us put in this effort. I’ve been on successful teams, I’ve coached on successful teams. I’ve also been a part of and on teams that weren’t that, so seeing both sides of that, you know what it is going to take to be better.”