Feb. 21, 2003
By Josh Griffin
The Santa Clara
As Rick Ruso awaits his upcoming match at No. 5 singles, he stands alone, arms resting against the 4-foot chain-link fence that separates him from court one by just a couple of feet.
"Here we go 'E,' let's get something right now!" Ruso yells to No.1 singles player Erich Chen, as the junior attempts to break serve in the second set.
Ruso turns his attention to court three.
"Here we go 'Pooch,' get up baby!" he bellows to sophomore Francisco Zepponi. Except this time Ruso cups his hands around his mouth so his words of encouragement are heard some 50 feet away.
Zepponi and Chen both win. Ruso strips out of his red team warm-ups and takes to court three and begins his match. Still, the captain in him does not quit.
"Here we go 'T!'" Ruso shouts one court over to sophomore Taylor Bedilion.
For the indisputable leader of the men's tennis team, Ruso's constant support for his teammates this season is everything you would expect from a captain - just as what was expected from him during the previous two seasons.
"He automatically steps up to the leadership position," said Zepponi. "It's natural for him to be the leader of the team and we all just go with that."
Ruso is in his fourth year with the team, but is only a junior due to a back injury that carried over from high school, which forced him to redshirt his freshman year. Since that forgettable season, Ruso has been the team's captain for three straight seasons and has been the epitome of the model Bronco in Santa Clara's tennis program.
"His attitude and the way he carries himself are what we think it means to be a Bronco," said Zepponi. "He's intense in every practice and every match. He fights for each point, and supports everyone at every single minute at every single point in the match."
Ruso is the 29th member of his family to attend Santa Clara. The first was his great grandfather James A. Bacigalupi, who graduated in 1901. On his dad's side, his grandfather Lou Ruso and his great uncle John Ruso both played baseball for Santa Clara. While it seems fitting for Rick to be a Bronco, he admits that it took some convincing.
"I didn't want to go here at all," said Ruso. "But I came here on a recruiting trip and was sold by Sean [Burns] and George [Husack]."
Burns, the winningest tennis coach in Santa Clara history, resigned last spring, leaving a void that Husack, a former assistant, soon filled. But even four years later, Husack can quickly recall the first time he met the guy that would become his team's vocal leader.
"Without a doubt, the first thing I noticed was his presence," Husack said of their first encounter. "He's just a pure gentlemen. The first time I shook his hand I said 'we need to get this guy.' He's a very loyal guy. You spend a minute with him and you can tell he's just an outstanding guy."
His loyalty shines in a number of ways. Ruso works overtime with the coaches individually to improve his backcourt play and to harness his heavy-hitting ability despite an elbow injury that often flares up. He walks from court to court, cheering on his teammates when he is not competing. He tutors the younger guys to focus on the success of the team.
"He provided me with a new outlook," said sophomore Ben Hidalgo. "I've learned that you've got to give 100 percent and that you do things for your team and not for yourself. A lot of players are concerned with themselves, but he's more team oriented."
Ruso's efforts go far beyond the court. He posted a 3.4 GPA fall quarter as a finance major and plans to apply for Santa Clara's MBA program to emphasize in agribusiness. As for a future in tennis, Ruso is not getting his hopes up.
"If my game blows up, yeah I will," Ruso said about pursuing the professional ranks. "But right now it doesn't look like it."
In his sophomore campaign, Ruso made history with doubles partner Chris Lam by starting the 2002 season ranked 53rd by the International Tennis Association. It was the first doubles ranking ever in the Broncos tennis program. The pair went 12-5 and earned All-West Coast Conference honors. Ruso went 7-6 in singles competition.
Seven matches into 2003, Ruso has posted a 2-5 singles record and a 1-5 doubles record. His elbow has been bothersome, keeping him out of a recent match with Hawaii.
Despite the injuries, the leadership role Ruso fills is an intangible that any program needs. Better yet, it is something that comes so naturally for a guy who was captain three years for his high school team as well.
"You can tell when someone's trying to lead," said Ruso. "My whole thing is lead by example. If I go out there and bust my ass, hopefully that will rub off onto everyone else. Not that it has to though. The guys on our team are animals themselves and I look to them for leadership just as much as they look to me."
Ruso fell in three sets Saturday. Nevertheless, the Broncos fought off the windy conditions to sweep doubles action and win four of five singles matches to defeat Sacramento St. 4-2. The squad's win overshadowed any individual shortcomings on that day. And their captain was a driving force in leading the other "animals" to their 13th straight home victory.