BEMIDJI -- Rylie Jones can’t play this season. But, as she’s proven throughout the year, that’s clearly not going to stop her from being a key part of the Bemidji High School girls basketball team.

“It’s more about putting in the effort to be there,” said Jones. “I feel more connected to my teammates. My friends are obviously playing, so I like to watch them play. It makes me feel like more a part of the team.”

The senior center was selected as a preseason top-50 player in Class 3A by Pacesetter Sports. But she tore her ACL over the summer, which prevented her from playing her final season in a Lumberjack uniform.

Until Tuesday, that is.

On Senior Night, Jones cracked the starting lineup and was on the floor for the opening tipoff against St. Cloud Tech. BHS won the jump ball for her and took a quick timeout, allowing Jones a curtain call and she exited to the bench.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

“It was pretty nice, honestly,” Jones said of the moment. “I knew it was going to happen because it was Senior Night, but it was still a good experience.”

“The ability to step on the court one last time, and to know that it’s probably going to be your last time, it’s special,” Bemidji head coach Steve Schreiber added. “You’re injured, you’re told that you don’t get to play ever again, and yet you still get to stand on the court you’ve called home for a good portion of the last three years of your life. It gives you a sense of closure.”

It’s not the first time the Lumberjacks have done something like this. In fact, just last year, Rylie’s older sister Jenna had a near-identical ceremonial start despite being out for her senior season due to injury.

Rylie was the one of the first to congratulate Jenna when she returned to the bench a year ago. When Rylie took her own turn on Tuesday, Jenna was in the BHS Gymnasium to shout out support from the stands.

“I definitely understand more how she felt,” Rylie said. “I was talking to her earlier today, and she was like, ‘It’s just the Jones legacy.’ So that was pretty funny.”

While Jones hasn’t been able to use her size or soft touch to contribute on the floor this year, she’s learned how to influence the game in a new way. She adopted a role focused on connecting with her teammates and offering instruction when she sees an opportunity.

And, perhaps more than anything, her presence is still a constant within the program. She dons her No. 35 uniform and still goes through warmups with the team, and -- evidenced by the habitual smile on her face -- it’s clear that she enjoys every second of it.

Bemidji senior Rylie Jones shoots the ball during warmups before Tuesday's game against St. Cloud Tech at the BHS Gymnasium. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Bemidji senior Rylie Jones shoots the ball during warmups before Tuesday's game against St. Cloud Tech at the BHS Gymnasium. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

“I have a pretty strong connection with everybody on the team,” Jones said. “It’s not just the seniors, either. It’s everybody.”

Bemidji beat St. Cloud Tech 52-41 on Tuesday. The Jacks certainly could have used a Rylie Jones-sized contribution from their frontcourt centerpiece, but just her appearance on the floor was more meaningful than whatever the scoreboard could read.

“She was expected to be a huge piece of who we were this year,” Schreiber said. “For her to go down, it totally changed who we were. For her to be able to step on the court one more time, it’s special for her. And for us.”

Jones, of course, would much rather be playing than watching. But it’s going to take a lot more than an injured knee to keep her away from her teammates at this point.

“(Staying involved) was pretty important to me,” Jones said. “I’ve played with them for like 10 years. I can’t back down now.”