Mariah Ruff to continue hoop dreams at St. Bonaventure
By John Bernhardt
An old proverb advises that, “the early bird gets the worm.” That was certainly the case for St. Bonaventure University, winners of a basketball sweepstakes to secure the services of Mariah Ruff.
Ruff, a local basketball prodigy who started her high school varsity career by scoring over 500 points during her junior high school years at Andes Central, then moved on to become the starting point guard for three consecutive seasons at Oneonta High, has made a verbal commitment to become a Bonnie.
St. Bonaventure’s courtship of Ruff started during the summer between her sophomore and junior years when the Bonnies invited Ruff to attend a “Day in the Life of a Bonnie,” a summer basketball program at the Western NY school. Nearly 20 elite high school basketball players from around the country attended the program.
The program was designed to help the girls better understand the world of a women’s Division I basketball player. Participants started the day on the court running drills familiar to college basketball programs. The girls then heard overviews of Bonnie offensive and defensive basketball concepts. After lunch the future college hoopsters attended seminars covering topics like nutrition, media relations and athletic training.
Getting a jump
Official contact by e-mail or letter with Division I athletic prospects is not allowed according to NCAA regulations until September 1 each year. Coach Jim Crowley and his staff led the pack once again, sending Ruff her first inquiry by e-mail at 12:01 a.m. that day.
“I really like the coaches,” Ruff said in explaining her selection of St. Bonaventure. “Coach Jim Cowley grew up in Windsor, one of the schools we play. He’s really personable, and I think I can really talk to him. In fact, the entire basketball staff at St. Bonaventure is easy to approach, people I feel confident I can get along with.”
Ruff was also impressed with Cowley’s coaching credentials, in particular his experience and the fact she believes he will be with the St. Bonaventure program throughout her four-year stay. This fall Cowley will begin his 14th season guiding the Lady Bonnies. Cowley was the ESPN.com National Coach of the Year in 2012 when he led St. Bonaventure to the school’s only appearance in the NCAA Division I Sweet 16. The Bonnie Coach is also a two-time Atlantic 10 Coach of the year (2009, 2012).
At first Ruff was wide-eyed as a flood of letters, enough to fill several shoe boxes, and e-mails arrived. Ruff read every one. “I thought it was really cool. I was excited because I actually didn’t think I would get any letters.”
As the autumn colors began to change, Ruff was surprised by the unusual requests that came her way. College basketball coaches attended her Oneonta soccer games, would stop by the gym during weekend open gym sessions, and one even requested her academic schedule hoping Oneonta school officials would allow her to shadow Ruff during a typical school day. Ruff nixed that request.
St. Bonaventure’s sweepstakes standing got a boost when Ruff decided to visit the school in December before Christmas. Her visit was not an official visit allowed to high school seniors, with the Ruff’s responsible for any costs associated with the trip. Ruff watched the Lady Bonnies play a game, toured the campus, and finally sat down with Cowley in his office.
Cowley offered Ruff a full scholarship to become a Bonnie, one of nearly 15 such offers that would come Ruff’s way before her verbal commitment. Cowley had four scholarships available and informed Ruff he would hold one aside until she had decided her basketball future. He also promised to let Ruff know when the other three scholarships would be claimed.
From that point forward, Ruff’s decision-making process changed. Ruff liked Cowley. She liked his staff, and she liked St. Bonaventure. As she went about the work of gathering information about other schools wanting her to play basketball on their campuses that data was matched up against what she knew about St. Bonaventure.
A central figure in Ruff’s recruitment saga was her high school coach Matt Miller. NCAA regulations limit contacts Division I college coaches can make with student athletes. There are no such limits made on the men and women who coach those athletes. Miller was flooded with inquiries.
“He was free game to anything,” marveled Ruff. Ruff’s parents, Dave and Carolyn, would apologize for the huge disruption the recruiting process brought to Miller’s life, but the Oneonta coach only laughed, claiming this might be his only opportunity to experience all this big time attention.
The process became onerous for Mariah after the NCAA basketball tournament concluded in March. College coaches were now allowed to make one telephone call each month to recruits. When Ruff’s cell phone rang at 7 a.m. on the first day calls were allowed, it was Coach Cowley, once again the leader of the pack.
At face value one call a month from each coach doesn’t sound too taxing, but when six or seven coaches would call the Ruff house each night, with each coach spending 20 minutes or longer chatting with Ruff on the phone, two to three hours of Mariah’s time every night was gobbled up on the telephone. The recruiting process wore thin quickly. “It was terrible. The phone calls were killing me.”
The tipping point for Ruff came after a phone call an assistant coach, Ryan Gensler made with Miller. Gensler wondered aloud what the Bonnies would need to do to snare Ruff. Miller explained that it was academics first, not just basketball, for the Ruffs. Although Mariah loved St. Bonaventure, she aspired to earn a degree in forensic science and Gensler’s school didn’t offer that program.
Gensler used Miller’s input and went to work. He posed the dilemma to the school’s science department and, working with the State Police Bureau and a Forensic Science Division stationed in Olean, the school devised a unique program offering where Ruff could earn a chemistry degree with an extension that provides forensic science internship opportunities in Olean.
St. Bonaventure was more than prepared in late spring when Ruff made her second visit. Her day began with a tour of the chemistry department and a one-on-one meeting the department head. Ruff learned about how chemistry academic demands would be integrated with basketball commitments. The chairman offered his services as a one-on-one mentor assisting Ruff as she completed her academic commitments.
Ruff’s next stop, Sr. Margaret Carney, the St. Bonaventure President. “She was cool. She actually knew a lot about me and said she would be personally involved in helping with career decisions,” reported Ruff.
Things next moved toward basketball. Paying for her own lunch, Ruff dined with girls currently on the team and then, as her parents met with the coaching staff, got a little time for some pick-up, three-on-three.
At the conclusion of her visit, Ruff made her verbal commitment to Cowley.
Ruff, a first team all-state basketball and soccer selection in Class B, met one of the other committed recruits during a national AAU tournament in Florida. Miranda Drummond from neighboring Harpursville is verbally committed. The last scholarship went to a shooting guard from Iowa.
Not to be overlooked in Ruff’s final decision is the St. Bonaventure basketball playing style. Coach Cowley runs a guard oriented basketball operation with a lot of fast breaks, a lot of three-point shooting, and a lot of man-to-man defense. All three appeal to Ruff. And, Cowley will be asking Ruff to bring the exact same style of basketball she engineers at Oneonta to Reilly Court in Olean. For Ruff, there’s nothing wrong with that.