For nearly 30 years, Steve Ruzich’s singular goal has been to bring a National Junior College Athletic Association Baseball Championship to local South Suburban College in South Holland. While Coach “Ru” has come very close during two of his teams’ national tournament seasons, he may have accomplished something even rarer along the way — the Hall of Fame.
On May 23, Coach Ru found himself in Grand Junction, Colo. (annual home of the NJCAA Division I World Series) slipping on the HOF jacket that fewer than 100 coaches across all NJCAA levels and sports have had the honor of wearing.
“It was the greatest feeling to be able to put on the HOF jacket,” said Ruzich. “It's such a prestigious award that I did not want to take it off. What an honor to wear a jacket that such a limited number of coaches have received.”
Ruzich also eclipsed the 1,000-win plateau this season (1,015 wins and 586 losses since 1987) joining only 12 other active coaches with 1,000 wins in the entire NJCAA — all of which he has won at SSC. Included in his tenure have been five sectional titles, 11 regional titles and eight regional runner-up finishes, as well as sixth- and ninth-place finishes in the NJCAA World Series. Prior to Ruzich’s HOF induction, his last trip to the World Series was with his 2006 Bulldogs. That team finished 51-12, including a school record 35 wins in a row. While he has many years left to pursue his dream of a national championship, looking back, Coach Ru says his most treasured memories during his 28-year run are of his players’ successes.
“The greatest result for a coach is to see a player come in as a freshman and buy into what you are teaching, and then go on to receive a scholarship as a sophomore,” said Ruzich. “It does take a special kind of player to play here at South Suburban College.”
Most recently, Coach Ru was notified this week that his sophomore outfielder Stephen Letz (Lake Central High School) was selected as a 1st Team All-American by the Division I NJCAA. This is the second consecutive year Letz has received All-American honors — an impressive feat never previously accomplished throughout SSC’s rich baseball history.
“Stephen has accomplished something nobody else has done here,” said Ruzich. “I am so proud of him because Stephen worked extremely hard and he was a great team player for two seasons. He will continue his career at Northern Illinois University where he has accepted a baseball scholarship this fall.”
Ruzich has now coached 15 All-Americans. Moreover, 22 of his players have been drafted by Major League Baseball teams, five of whom have reached the big leagues: Rob Mackowiak, (Pirates, White Sox, Nationals, Padres); Ron Mahay (Red Sox, Cubs, Royals, Rangers, Twins); Julius Matos (Padres, Royals); Tim Byrdak (Tigers, Royals, Mets); and Tony Cingrani (currently with the Reds).
“I am watching a Cubs game a few years ago and Ron Mahay is pitching for the Cubs and Rob Mackowiak comes to bat for the Pirates," said Ruzich. “This is something you dream of as a coach — to think you had such an impact on these players’ lives. I was cheering for both and Mackowiak walked on a 3-2 pitch, which made it feel they both won."
Ruzich added, “But most gratifying is that we are providing these kids with a great opportunity to get their educations. They are student-athletes at SSC— students first and athletes second. I am proud to say that our program has more than an 80 percent graduation rate, and over 250 of our former players have continued on to four-year institutions with many on baseball scholarships to those schools.”
Coach Ru and his players are hosting a Baseball Camp from 9 a.m. to noon, June 23- 26 for kids ages 6-14. For more information, call (708) 596-2000, ext. 2413 or email SRuzich@ssc.edu.