NAUGATUCK — The players on every high school team think of themselves as a big, supportive sports family. In Naugatuck, that belief was put to the test in the 2011-12 season.
Six weeks ago the world turned upside down for Naugatuck High girls basketball coach Jodie Ruccio, and for the entire Greyhounds’ team. Ruccio’s husband, Josh, died unexpectedly at the terribly young age of 35.
Josh Ruccio was a fixture on the Naugatuck sports scene for more than 20 years, playing baseball and basketball at the high school, coaching at every level of youth sports in the borough, coaching with Jodie in the girls program, and also serving as vice president of the community’s long-standing Hall of Fame.
All of Naugatuck grieved when Josh passed, but none more so than the high school girls basketball team. The team rallied around its coach, and in the process played its best basketball of the season.
The Josh Ruccio story is filled with heartbreak on many levels. The grandson of a Naugatuck sports legend, Robert “Rip” Ruccio, Josh was the town’s proverbial big lug. Deeply committed to Naugy sports, Ruccio displayed an effervescent personality. If you were within 100 feet of him, rest assured that he would find you and crank you. He never left a good put-down unsaid. I know that for a fact.
But Josh’s life was in a tailspin the last few years, and his name, once associated only in the sports pages, turned up in the police blotter during an agonizing struggle against addiction. He could not keep his coaching job or his position as a town employee.
“It was a real difficult time for him,” Jodie Ruccio said. “He wanted so badly to be part of the boys program. He still wanted to help the girls team. But he fell into one of those spirals and he could not get out.”
Ruccio had just started working at the Naugatuck Glass Company, and it was hoped that a life was about to be reclaimed.
“It was typical Josh,” Jodie quipped, “that he thought he had all the answers for the team. He was always working up game plans. He would say, ‘Call me before you get on the bus. I have a plan.'”
But on Jan. 16 all hope vanished as Ruccio died suddenly. An autopsy was performed but the cause of death, Jodie Ruccio said, is still unknown.
“He was doing better,” Jodie added. “It was a shock.”
No one who met Josh Ruccio was unmoved by the news.
This is when the close and supportive Naugatuck sports family went into action. Assistant coaches, and former Naugy hoop stars, Heather Yablonski and Kara Sheedy Caron helped guide the team, along with assistants Sean Dunn and Karl Evangilista. Jodie Ruccio left the team for five days, and life went on, but not as usual, around the gymnasium. The day of the wake the team held a practice, and then visited the funeral parlor together in an emotional and unifying moment.
“After we found out that Josh had passed away, we wanted to try and make Jodie proud,” is how Naugy junior Steph Lima put it. Lima may have been the player closest to Josh, and she credits his endless hours of work that has improved her game.
“We wanted to be there for her,” added Lima, “and get a win for Josh.”
Naugatuck’s first game after Josh Ruccio’s death was at Watertown. It was the day of the funeral. Jodie did not attend. The Greyhounds lost to the Indians, 44-38.
Jodie was back at practice three days later. Her goal was to help the team resume a normal routine.
“I felt bad for girls,” she said. “I never wanted them to feel pressure in the next game (against St. Paul) that they had to win for me. I brought them all into a huddle and said, ‘Alright, we’ve grieved, and we’ve gotten past it. We said since the first day of the season that we are a family, but don’t go out and play for me, or for Josh. Go out and play for Naugy.'”
The team clasped hands in the huddle, said “One-two-three, family,” and has felt like one ever since.
Naugy beat St. Paul in Jodie’s first game back, and most importantly for the girls, they got another shot at Watertown.
“We wanted that (Watertown) victory,” Lima said. “I am a strong believer that everything happens in life for a reason. That’s why I think we got another chance to play Watertown.”
The Greyhounds won five of their last seven regular-season games, and in the first-round of the NVL tournament, pinned an upset on Watertown. Naugatuck rallied from seven-points down in the final minutes to win in overtime.
“The girls have been more passionate,” Ruccio said, which is something noticed even by a casual observer like myself. “They are more responsive. I know I’ve been more focused and driven.”
Ruccio said that the last five weeks of her life “were as awful as any five weeks could be. But I couldn’t wait to get to practice. I always say to the girls, ‘Whatever is going on in your life off the court, give me everything you have for two hours at practice.’
“That is what I preached, so now I had to do the same thing,” Ruccio added. “I know they thought, ‘She’s here. She’s giving her all. We have to give our all too.'”
Lima may have put it best when she said, “This brought us all together. It gave us a different mindset. It opened our eyes. It showed we are a family. We were tested.”
Ruccio was moved by a flood of text messages from 14- and 15-year-old girls, asking what they could do and how they could help. It was a remarkable reminder of the loyalty and love within the Naugatuck sports community.
Jodie Ruccio is a New Jersey native, and former college basketball player at St. Joseph in Vermont and Post University. Through Josh Ruccio she became a Greyhound. It was Josh who talked her into her first coaching gig, with the Naugatuck boys in the Waterbury fall league. It was Josh who guided her into the high school system, first as a volunteer assistant under Keith Raczkowski, then as junior varsity, and later, as girls varsity head coach.
“At our wedding, there was Josh and all his buddies singing the Greyhounds fight song,” Jodie recalls. “We must have gone to 30 weddings together, and at every one of them they sing the Greyhounds fight song. No one loved their home town more than Josh loved Naugatuck.”
And despite his hardships and tribulations, all of Naugatuck, and especially a girls high school basketball team, loved him back.