Russo named MOP as Rams capture first NCAA berth

By ED OWENS Sports Reporter
Warwick's Wayne Russo deserves everything that he has coming to him.
A 2001 graduate of Toll Gate high school, Russo is the starting second baseman on the University of Rhode Island baseball team that just won the Atlantic 10 championship and with it earned a slot in the NCAA tournament, two firsts for the URI program. For Russo, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, the Rams' accomplishments are a reflection of the team's hard work and dedication, which head coach Frank Leoni sees as a reflection of Russo.
“He is not a captain per se, but he knows how to get it done day in and day out,” Leoni said. “He sets that example and leads by example. He is definitely that kind of guy. The true quality of a superstar is that they make everyone around them better and that is what Wayne does. He makes everyone better around him. It is great to see someone like him win [the A-10 MOP] because he understands his role so well. He knows that he is here to make everyone better and it is all because of his leadership.”
Russo battered opposing pitching in the Atlantic 10 tournament, going 7-for-11 at the plate (.636 average) with two doubles and three RBI. He went 2-for-3 in the championship game against George Washington and slammed an RBI-double off the wall in the ninth inning that put the Rams up 9-7. But the ever-modest Russo would rather talk about URI's success as a team than his unbelievable individual performance.
“The goal that this team has had first and foremost was to win the A-10 Championship,” Russo said. “That is something that we have been working at for my four years on this team. We had a great camaraderie, the team jelled right away and we knew that we had something special at the beginning of this season. Being able to help my team is the most important thing; being selected as the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament is just a bonus. We got what we wanted and that was the A-10 Championship and anything that I could do to help my team get that championship is something that I will always remember.”
“I think that it goes beyond batting average with [Russo],” Leoni said. “He is the best infielder that I have ever coached. He is also a very intelligent kid. I throw a lot at my middle infield and Wayne is that smart kid who sits right in the middle of the field. It is like having another catcher on the field who sees everything before it evolves. That is really important. He plays the game with a passion and he does whatever it takes to make the play.”
Possibly the most impressive thing about Russo's career at URI is that it almost never came about. He suffered a setback while recovering from shoulder surgery in his freshman year that caused him to miss nearly all of that season. After receiving a medical red shirt as a freshman, Russo went on to have two productive seasons for the Rams before he was forced from the lineup with another injury. With one week remaining in the 2004 regular season Russo broke his hand when he was hit by a pitch and had to sit out the A-10 Tournament, where URI lost in the finals. But instead of looking back negatively on his injuries, Russo used that time away from the game as positive motivation for the Rams championship run this year.
“Last year, unfortunately, I went down with a hand injury as we were going into the playoffs as the number one seed,” Russo said. “It's hard to explain how it feels to be sitting on the sidelines when you know that you could have been out on the field doing what you are supposed to do; when you would give anything you can to just be out on that field but you know that you can't. All you can do is root on your teammates because you know that you have nine other players out there doing their best and that they are all great players. But I think that I had a little extra to give this year because I had to watch [last year] from the sidelines. But I saved my cast from last year and on our bus ride [to the A-10's] I took it out and showed the guys for motivation. I had something extra, something special to give because I had to sit out last year. When I got up to the plate and I just wanted to be a hard out. I wanted to hit the ball hard and do what I could to get on base.”
Russo is just one of eight Rhode Island-grown talents on URI's 27-man roster but hopes that the team's success will catch the interest of local high school athletes. The future of the Rams' program could be shaped by athletes who, like Russo, decided to stay in-state to play for URI.
“I never knew how much pride you could have playing for your state university,” Russo said. “Every game there are more and more people in the stands and it's not just relatives. You see South Kingstown hats, North Kingstown hats and some Warwick hats out in the crowd. That makes you proud, especially coming from Rhode Island and seeing little guys who might look up to you. It just makes you want to perform to your utmost ability. I hope that [because of URI's success] we can get more people to come out to these games and maybe get some more kids from Rhode Island to come play here instead of going to the ACC and Big 10 schools. If we can do that then URI could be a perennial A-10 powerhouse.”
Rhode Island's Atlantic 10 title earned the team a bid into the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed. The Rams will travel to Long Beach, CA to take on top seeded Long Beach State in the Regional round. But instead of focusing on URI's low tournament seeding and playing on Long Beach State's home field, Russo looks for any advantage that the upstart Rams might have.
“We are a four seed going up against Long Beach State and I think that that shines a new light on us,” Russo said. “We don't have any pressure on us to win. They always had a great pitching staff and now we get to go there and show them what Rhode Island has to offer. We faced everyone's number one pitcher earlier in the year because we were the guys that everyone was shooting for. So we have some experience against number ones, but not California number ones. Everything that we do out there is going to be a new experience for all of us but I think that we have a team that can rise to that level, that talent, and do what we do in the regional. If we can play like we did in the A-10 tournament then there are going to be some teams that won't be walking all over this four seed once we get there.”
The Rams tentatively plan to leave Rhode Island on Wednesday morning and will play Long Beach State at 10:00 p.m. EDT on Friday night.
“The guys here at the University of Rhode Island are all good players and I love these guys,” Russo said. “They are the best baseball family that I've ever had. I won a championship back with Toll Gate in 2001 and that was a great team but when you make it to the college level, everything gets so much more intense. It makes you closer to the guys that you are playing with and I will never forget any of these guys. Now I just can't wait to go down to the [NCAA] Regional.”


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