“OK, Grandma, go use that cane!”
“You need a wheelchair, Gertrude?”
“Did you take your arthritis medication?”
“Granny Smith Apple!”
Those were Jeananne Ruck’s teammates talking, and believe it or not, those were her cheers.
When the former promising prep star made the decision to go back to school and play college softball in her mid-30s, there was plenty to fear. She hadn’t played fastpitch since her first attempt at a college career fizzled in the classroom 18 years ago.
Did she still have it on the field? How much had her skills eroded? Perhaps even more frightening to contemplate: Would this career gamble pay off professionally?
“The sacrifices that I made,” Ruck said, “I was afraid that maybe at times, I was going to look like a fool. Job. Income. There’s been a lot of sacrifices. I’m living like a college student, and that’s weird at 36.
“But I wanted to get my bachelor’s degree.”
Never did it cross Ruck’s mind when she set out that she’d appear to her effervescent 18- and 19-year-old Cuesta College teammates as the oldest living person to ever grace a diamond.
So, it really didn’t bother her when that happened.
“I think the grandma jokes were rather hilarious,” Ruck said.
The razzing was endearing to Ruck, a 36-year-old Clovis native who had a standout season for the Cougars at the plate and in the circle this past spring and now heads back to the same university and coach she helped win a national championship way back in 1996.
She credited her time and the people at Cuesta with turning her life around.
“To me, it’s still surreal,” Ruck said. “I think I’m lucky. People say it’s amazing. I just feel like I’m lucky because a lot of people don’t have this opportunity.”
In helping the Cougars to a 26-15 record and second-place finish in the Western State Conference Gold Division, Ruck was second on the team with a .385 batting average this past spring. She led Cuesta with six home runs and ranked 19th in the state with 49 RBI. As a pitcher, Ruck was 10-5 with a 3.82 ERA.
“A lot of our opponents couldn’t believe her age when I told them,” Cougars head coach Sheila McGuire said. “They couldn’t believe she was in that great of shape and that she was able to compete at that level. She can compete with all the top players in the conference easy, if not all the top players in the state.”
Only a sophomore by NAIA standards, Ruck signed to play her junior season next spring at Oklahoma City University, an eight-time NAIA national championship program where she started every game in right field as a freshman.
“It’s believable to us that she could at least be the same ballplayer she was 18 years ago,” Oklahoma City head coach Phil McSpadden said, “but obviously with more maturity.”
As a highly touted recruit, Ruck hit .409 for the Stars, adding 10 home runs and 46 RBI in 59 games as a freshman. She pitched just 241⁄3 innings but was 4-0 with a 1.44 ERA.
But that spring, Ruck just stopped going to class, torpedoing her own chances of a repeat performance.
When McSpadden helped get Ruck a spot with Butler Community College in Kansas a year later, he said she never showed up.
Ruck similarly tanked the last few weeks of her senior year at Clovis Buchanan High the previous year. Her final grades were the reason why she didn’t have NCAA Division I qualification and couldn’t play at Cal State Northridge, where she had signed after her original commitment to Oklahoma State was voided because of recruiting violations by the Cowboys.
Ruck said she held between eight and 10 Division I scholarship offers at one point. For years, she played on the youth-level powerhouse Fresno Force travel team alongside fellow Fresno-area standouts Amanda Scott, Courtney Dale and Kellie Wiginton, who each went on to become NCAA Division I All-Americans.
Scott was a four-time first-team All-America selection for Fresno State, shattering pitching records, delivering the Bulldogs a Women’s College World Series title in 1998 and joining Team USA for a title in the World Championships in 1998.
Another dominant pitcher, Dale won UCLA an NCAA title with a 33-1 record and sub 1.00 ERA in 1999. Wiginton was was a four-year starter at catcher for Stanford and still ranks on the Cardinal’s top 10 career lists for hits, runs and games played.
As for Ruck — J.R. as she was known back in those days — “I would put her on the same level,” said Scott, now the head coach at NAIA Roosevelt University in Chicago. She had “tons of power and tons of athleticism and was certainly capable of having an extremely successful college career back then.”
The wasted potential made it all the more humiliating when Ruck failed academically. Part of the problem was her untreated Attention Deficit Disorder, which made it nearly impossible for her to focus on tests and assignments.
Watching people she knew compete in the Olympics twisted the knife deeper. When she dropped out of school for the final time in 1998, softball went, too.
“I didn’t even want to look at a softball,” Ruck said. “It was like a breakup.
“I pushed it all aside because it was kind of painful. It was just kind of ridiculous what I did. I was just embarrassed, and I found other things to fill the void.”
Coincidentally, her rejection of the sport has kept her eligible to play at the NAIA level, which has no age limit and allows gaps in eligibility as long as an athlete is not playing competitively.
For Ruck, the decision to return to school in 2012 came well before a return to the field.
She was a sales rep for a decorative concrete company and had been working on the Central Coast for the past decade when she realized she wanted a more fulfilling career.
Once on campus, she connected with McGuire, a former Stockton area standout who played collegiately at Pacific. It turned out the two had crossed paths when McGuire was coaching part-time for a high-level youth team that went up against Ruck’s team in the early 1990s.
McGuire introduced Ruck to a program on campus aimed at helping students overcome learning disabilities. She also furnished Ruck with workout routines to help her get back in shape and coaxed her back on the field one of the first times they met.
The coach slowly integrated Ruck with the team, and during a redshirt season where she established grades good enough to regain her athletic eligibility, Ruck lost about 80 pounds. She and catcher Marissa Fruzza became fast friends, and the granny puns caught like wildfire throughout the team, if for nothing more than because they were different than the usual softball chatter.
A first-team all-conference pick, Ruck bounced back in the classroom, making the honor roll this spring. She’s now thinking the fulfilling career she’s looking for could be in coaching.
“At first, she was worried about being more like a coach and a mom rather than a player,” Fruzza said, “but in my perspective, Jeananne is just a different type of player. She’s a player that’s really a leader.
“She never treated me like a mother. She treated me like a mentor and a friend.
“She should be an inspiration for anybody struggling with going back to school or anyone playing sports.”