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By MIKE GAROFOLA
After finishing up the last week of 2016 with a couple of impressive victories at the Marmion Academy Quad – following by a dazzling performance over the two days of the Don Flavin in DeKalb, senior Joe Ruffino further validated his spot as the No. 2 man in the state at 106 in the latest Go Earn It Wrestling Apparel ratings seen here at IllinoisMatmen.com.
Ruffino has built a dazzling resume along the way, highlighted by his 2015-2016 campaign that saw him pin his way to an Upstate Eight Conference crown, followed by the same course of action one week later at regionals.
The Saints three-year veteran would then make his first career appearance at the state tournament after advancing from the Conant sectional.
This all-action dynamo is a wonderfully gifted, balanced athlete, whose movement, toughness, speed and quickness allows him to unleash an arsenal of weapons upon his opponents, who, this season, have felt the full force of the Saints captain right from the very beginning of this season.
Mixing a perfect blend of mat smarts, and a high intensity pressing game, Ruffino has taken a bite out of twenty-two straight opponents just ahead of the new year.
With the most important last two months of his career about to unfold, we took a few minutes to chat with both Ruffino, and his head coach, Jason Potter as each prepare for what both envision to be a memorable February – 2017.
Illinois Matmen: Where has the improvement come from last year to this season?
Ruffino: A lot of time in the weight room, freestyle, plenty of wrestling, competing at preseason nationals, and training with my brother (Nick) and just having coach like (Potter) who believes in me, and is in my corner for one last time.
Illinois Matmen: There’s family history in the sport, but that doesn’t always translate to success, Did you know early on Joe would be as good as he’s turned out?
Potter: When you come from a wrestling family such as Joe (did) – the physical and technical side of wrestling is something you are immersed in almost from birth. The key factor for someone like Joe is the mental side of wrestling. When you’re young, you have a lot of people helping you become successful, but at some point in your career you need to find the self drive to be successful. I knew if he could figure (this) out, there would be no limit to his success.
Illinois Matmen: You won seven as a freshmen, then 18 the next year when you advanced into the sectionals, talk about your first two years in the Saints starting lineup.
Ruffino: I was really a small guy – soaking wet I wasn’t even 100 pounds, so everyone seemed to be so much bigger than me. Technically I felt like I right there with all of my opponents, but my mental game just wasn’t there. That’s were (again) coach Potter was there for me to help me out.
Potter: Joe had a couple of set backs early in his high school career that caused him to do a bit of soul searching. I think (that) was the point in which he had to ask himself if he was going to wrestle because it was something he had always done, or, if it was something he was going to go all in on – and commit to doing full time. We talked a lot about that, and it was at this point Joe began to wrestle for himself, and for the love of the sport, and that’s when you saw his mental approach change also.
Illinois Matmen: So what is it like to wrestle for a guy like Jason Potter?
Ruffino: He’s like a big brother. He’s always there for me, just to talk about anything at anytime, and when it comes to wrestling, he brings so much experience from his days wrestling here at St. Charles and then Illinois into the room. I’ve learned my way around the mat because of him, and the technical and tactical approach to things are amazing. The approach and intensity in training he brings, along with our assistant (and his brother Chris) has helped push me to a level that I need to be at in order to be successful.
Illinois Matmen: What does Joe do that makes him one of the top 106-pounders in the state?
Potter: His experience is a huge factor in his success. He came into high school at 90 pounds, and we threw him to the wolves at the varsity level. Joe hasn’t forgot what it was like to get bullied on the mat, and has found some comfort in returning the favor.
Illinois Matmen: What’s the highlight of your career thus far?
Ruffino: That’s an easy one. Just coming into the room everyday and being around my teammates. My sister (Christina) is one of our team managers, and without any of them, none of what I do would be fun.
Illinois Matmen: On the flip side, what’s the ‘low-light’ of your career?
Ruffino: It has to be state last year. I’ve always had a case of butterflies before the competition, and it really got the best of me in Champaign. I looked up from that big floor and into the stands, and it was over for me. It was maybe my worst effort of the year, and it was one and done for me.
Illinois Matmen: What’s Joe’s personality away from the room?
Potter: That’s hard to say, because it’s non-stop wrestling with him. He’s obsessed with the sport, and we’re always talking about it. But the thing about him (is) he rides freestyle scooters at the skate part. I didn’t believe it until I saw a video of him flying in the air on the bike. It’s his ‘release’ outside of room.
Illinois Matmen: We’re about to enter the final two months of the season, what are your expectations from here on out.
Ruffino: I’ve wrestled most (up) at 113, so I know I’ll be ready for the grind once I drop down for good. This is my last chance, so the goal is to get downstate, and win it all. It’s what I’ve been training for, and it has to be my No. 1 goal.
Illinois Matmen: What about next year. What are your plans for college?
Ruffino: I am really impressed with Elmhurst College, and its program there. My former teammate (Keone Derain) is there, and he loves the program, and has said a lot of great things about it, and I really feel like it would be a good fit for me. After the season is over, I’ll focus more on all of that.
Illinois Matmen: Can Joe compete at the next level?
Potter: I believe so, yes. It will take a year for him to put the size on, but I feel it’s something he and will do. I foresee his college career playing out similar to high school, in that he’ll go in a bit undersized, will overcome it, then will be a hammer at the end of his college career.