NAUGATUCK — All great competitors have one thing in common: A passion to succeed.
Naugatuck girls basketball coach Jodie Ruccio felt that fire in her belly as a senior point guard at Point Pleasant (N.J.) High, leading a 14-8 team to a New Jersey state championship.
She followed that up with a stellar career at St. Joseph College where she was fourth in the nation in assists before transferring to Post University. Ruccio would come to rely on that passion as she took over the head coaching position at Naugatuck five years ago.
“That was a pretty big challenge for me,” Ruccio said. “I took over for coach Keith Raczkowski, who had 22 years in the program. Those were some pretty big shoes to fill and I’m only the third coach in the history of Naugatuck basketball. There were a lot of expectations on my part to continue that winning tradition.”
The bar was set pretty high to say the least. Raczkowski accumulated 349 wins as his teams qualified for the state tournament in 20 of those 22 seasons.
Along the way came four trips to the final four of the state tournament and seven Naugatuck Valley League titles—including six in a row during an incredible stretch from 1990-95 when the Greyhounds won 105 NVL games in a row.
Ruccio learned all she could by joining the staff as an assistant in 2003. Five years on the staff prepared her for the top spot but it came unexpectedly at the start of the 2007-08 season when Raczkowski stepped down and was later inducted into the Naugatuck Hall of Fame in 2008.
The first three seasons of Ruccio’s tenure, Naugatuck qualified for the state tournament. Last year that streak ended as the ‘Hounds struggled through a 3-17 season.
“That was a rough season to go through,” Ruccio said. “But it was a learning process for the girls and my coaching staff. We went to work in the offseason and broke everything down. I couldn’t have achieved the success I had the first three years without my assistant coaches. And I rely on them to help turn this around and get back to the state tournament. That is the goal because once you get there anything can happen.”
Ruccio has fond memories from the postseason.
In 2009, Naugatuck had lost twice to Torrington during the regular season by 30-plus points. The ‘Hounds were ranked 28th in Class L with a 9-11 record and the Raiders were 19-1 and the No. 4 seed.
No one expected a Naugy victory that night except Ruccio and her team. Sure enough, they stunned Torrington in a 58-54 win that will be remembered for quite some time.
“Once you get (to the state tournament) everyone is 0-0 and it’s a whole new season,” Ruccio said. “Anything can happen and we proved that. My mom always told me it’s a 50-50 shot to win any ball game. That is something I go by to this day. We proved that up in Torrington in 2009.”
Ruccio’s best player in her tenure at Naugatuck was likely Jessica Webber, the school’s most recent 1,000-point scorer.
“My first three seasons I had Jessica Webber as my point guard,” Ruccio said. “She certainly made my job easier. I was hard on her because I played the position and had high expectations. It’s a hard position to play especially when your coach is a former point guard.”
That mentality has carried through the years.
“Last year I yapped at Stephanie Lima every time she brought the ball up the court,” Ruccio said. “Maybe I was spoiled after having Jessica for three years. I had to step back and realize there is an awful lot to this position. But I certainly don’t want to lower my expectations because I’m just such a competitive person.”
Now, Ruccio seems to have figured out the backcourt with a nice two-guard system.
“This year Carli Pellicia is doing a good job for us,” said Ruccio, whose Greyhounds lost to Sacred Heart on Tuesday night and dropped to 2-4 on the season. “But we broke it down and she is just responsible for not turning the ball over. Stephanie has moved to the other guard spot and took over some of the scoring responsibilities.”
With those guards and more experience throughout the floor, Ruccio said the team’s goals will stay high.
“The goal this year is to make it back to the states and instill in the girls some pride in wearing the Garnet and Grey,” Ruccio said.