Over the past five seasons, the Riverside-Brookfield High School baseball program has been on a pretty impressive run. The Bulldogs have been led by a pair of outstanding head coaches in Mike Ziroli and his successor/current skipper Dallas Till (along with his assistant coach Mark Ruge), claimed several conference and regional titles collectively, produced a historic 32-win season in 2013, and featured a two-time all-state pitcher in Middle Tennessee State-bound Will Kincanon.
While the baseball program’s success has clearly been a team effort with the aforementioned names among others assuming primary roles, it’s certainly not coincidence that the Bulldogs’ recent excellence runs parallel with Joe Ruge’s RBHS baseball career.
Ruge, a 2009 RBHS grad, was a two-time Metro Suburban Conference MVP playing for Ziroli. Despite battling tendonitis during the early portion of his senior season, the versatile Ruge hit .383 with five home runs, 45 RBIs (school record) and 46 hits overall, while also posting six wins, four shutouts and an 0.96 ERA as the team’s unquestioned ace.
At the collegiate level, Ruge didn’t skip a beat on the ballfield, putting together an outstanding career at the University of St. Francis in Joliet playing for legendary coach Gordon Gillespie. Ruge was a NAIA Rawlings Gold Glove winner at first base (only four awarded in the country) and also provided an excellent bat in the Saints’ lineup. Ironically, Ruge’s best year at St. Francis occurred in 2010 when he didn’t even play due to Tommy John surgery.
“I sat next to Gordie Gillespie at every game and my job was to protect him from getting hit by baseballs,” Ruge said. “I took advantage of the opportunity and learned so much about how to play the game of baseball the proper way from Gordie. Every game he would explain every situation and how to go about it.”
While attending St. Francis, Ruge remained entrenched in the RBHS program as well.
In fact, Ruge has coached the Bulldogs’ summer team with Till and his dad, Mark, and has also run the RBHS summer baseball camp with his dad over the past five years. Blessed with a seemingly innate knowledge for the nuances of baseball, Ruge has also meticulously scouted the Bulldogs’ opponents the past five years for all their regional and sectional matchups.
“Joe’s scouting reports are remarkable,” Till said. “There were no surprises for us based on the feedback he gave us. He really knows the game.”
Although he’s just 23, Ruge’s all-in association and passion for RBHS baseball is both evident and impressive. Perhaps it sounds like a stretch, but on the local high school baseball level, Ruge’s RBHS baseball pride is analogous with Derek Jeter’s loyalty for the Yankee pinstripes, Tommy Lasorda’s self-proclaimed ability to bleed Dodger blue and the great Tony Gwynn’s eternally classy reputation as “Mr. Padre.”
For Ruge, the reasons for coaching are simple.
“I enjoy watching kids succeed and achieve their goals,” Ruge said. “That makes me happy. I really feel like since a lot of people from high school helped me get where I am today, I need to offer my services back to RB. My teachers and coaches helped me enormously in terms of me getting baseball and academic scholarships. Also, I just love baseball and I want my alma mater to be successful.”
Kincanon, who graduated from RBHS this year as arguably the greatest pitcher in school history, shares a special bond with Ruge and his dad.
“Having the Ruges in the dugout along with Coach Till was great,” Kincanon said. “They all have a passion for the game similar to mine so we love talking baseball. Coach [Mark] Ruge would always have all of us dying of laughter on the way to games. I’ll miss those stories.”
While Till has been coaching the RBHS girls basketball team this summer, the Ruge father-son tandem has guided the baseball squad to a solid showing on the diamond. Led by Connor Berek, Nick Fucinato, Jake Surprenant, Kenny Ngo and Richie Gentile, the Bulldogs have played over .600 baseball. Two-sport athletes like Brian Kulaga and Adolfo Linares have also contributed for the Bulldogs.
As if coaching the Bulldogs and RBHS summer camps isn’t enough, the indefatigable Ruge is also a coach for a 15-year-old travel team called the Illinois Ice (currently 24-2 with two major tournament titles) and plays first base/third base for a semi-pro team, the Chicago Clout, which won the 2012 NABF World Series in New York.
“It’s a great experience especially after college ball,” Ruge said about playing for the Clout. “The team consists of players, ranging in age from 20 to 52, with most of them playing professional or college baseball.”
While baseball and coaching are definitively part of Ruge’s future, he’s always been an honor roll student as well. Ruge graduated from St. Francis in 2013 with a double major in marketing and management. He’s currently pursuing a master’s degree in logistics with a graduation date of December 2014. Ruge recently landed a job as a manufacturing engineer intern for the productivity team at Caterpillar.
“Things worked out perfectly,” Ruge said about his summer plans. “Baseball season is coming to an end and I just started with Caterpillar. I am very excited to be in the working world. I’ve also been trying to spend time with my family.”
With his dad as the head coach during his youth baseball days, Ruge won district championships for North Riverside youth baseball in 2000, 2001 and 2004. When he was a student at Komarek, Ruge also cultivated a love for other sports like golf and basketball in addition to his favorite past time.
While Ruge is quick to credit his baseball mentors like Ziroli, Till and particularly Gillespie, he reserves the most praise and gratitude for his parents, Mark and Lucy.
“My mom has always been my biggest supporter,” Ruge said. “She would always drive me to games, cheer me on, and she attended all my high school and college games.
“Of course, coaching with my dad is special. He taught me everything I know about baseball since I was two-years-old. I was in the Stella’s batting cages with him when I was 3. That was probably totally illegal but we loved baseball. He’s supportive but expects perfection and as a coach I don’t mind that at all. We talk about baseball 24/7.”
Mark Ruge, a former basketball standout at Morton East High School and then Morton College, also relishes the opportunity to coach with his son.
“When I’m coaching with Dallas [Till] and Joe in the dugout, those are the happiest and proudest moments in my life,” Mark Ruge said. “Joe has a real gift for playing and coaching the game of baseball. I’m not only proud of everything he’s accomplished, but the way he has gone about it.”