Neil Ruth may have one of the most fascinating nicknames of any high school athlete in Gainesville. Any time Ruth enters the batter’s box for Oak Hall, you can hear his teammates in the dugout calling him “Shaq”. Ruth does have a couple of things in common with the NBA legend. The former’s first name is nearly identical to the latter’s last name. Both play basketball, although O’Neal might have the upper hand.
On paper, the similarities stop there. Shaquille O’Neal towers over his opponents at 7’1 and played for six teams throughout his 19 years in the NBA. Neil Ruth currently stands at 5’9 and plays in left field for the Oak Hall baseball team. However, the pair do have another trait in common: their ability to take over a game in a matter of seconds.
The Oak Hall Eagles just recently capped off a breakthrough campaign in their 2022 season. The team wrapped up the season with a 14-4 record, finishing with their best winning percentage in over a decade. Ruth’s consistent and stellar performance throughout the year played a major factor in the team’s newfound success. He maintained a .491 batting average throughout the season while driving in 20 runs.
Ruth also proved himself as a major threat on the bases as well. He led the Eagles with 20 stolen bases this past season. Additionally, Ruth scored 17 runs during the 2022 campaign as well. Ruth’s blazing speed on the base paths and his action-packed at-bats this past year allowed him to establish himself as one of Oak Hall’s brightest stars on the baseball field. As he prepares to enter his senior year, that star power will only continue to grow.
A Love For Baseball Running Through His Veins
Growing up in Chiefland, Florida, Ruth picked up a baseball bat at a young age. He played for multiple local teams throughout his childhood prior to his arrival at Oak Hall. A major component of Ruth’s interest in baseball came from his siblings, who had found success in their respective baseball careers.
“[I started liking baseball] back when I was little when I could walk. It ran in my family,” Ruth said. “My two older brothers played college baseball, so it’s just all been a family thing. So I just picked it up when I was little and played ever since.”
One of Neil’s older brothers, Joe Ruth, currently plays for the LaGrange College Panthers. Joe and the Panthers recently won their first NCAA Regional title in program history. Just like his younger brother, Joe Ruth has established himself as a perennial threat at the plate; throughout 46 games this past season, he has maintained a .454 batting average while racking up 10 home runs and 81 RBIs.
While Neil Ruth cited his brothers as two of his biggest influences in playing baseball, he also noted the role that other members of his family played in his discovery of the sport. Without their support, Ruth may not have fallen in love with the game the way he did.
“My grandpa and my mom got me into baseball,” Ruth said. “They’ve helped me [with baseball] the whole time. They always drive me to games and tournaments.”
Adapting To A New Environment With The Eagles
Ruth started his high school tenure at Oak Hall in Fall 2019. Freshman year serves as a major transitional period for most students, and Ruth was no exception. His hometown of Chiefland is over 30 miles away from the school. As a result, Ruth has had to make quite the commute over to Oak Hall over the last three years.
Additionally, he found himself extremely busy with his schoolwork during his first year in high school. As a result of all these circumstances, he initially did not join the Eagles’ baseball team his freshman year. The Eagles went 1-4 during the 2020 season before the COVID-19 pandemic cut their year short.
Eventually, Ruth joined Oak Hall’s baseball roster during his sophomore year. He initially caught Eagles Head Coach Kevin Maris’ attention with his incredible speed on the bases. However, as Maris got to know him better, he came to realize just how good of a player Ruth could be.
“I think in his 10th-grade year, he was just learning to trust his baseball skill and believe he could play at a varsity level,” Maris said. “I saw [his] potential early, but it really comes down to the player when he recognizes in himself the talent that he possesses.”
WOW! Talk about great baserunning! Right before Peniel’s pitcher threw out the ball, Neil Ruth steals second base. With Peniel’s defense distracted, Harrison Beach manages to steal home. While Peniel attempts to tag Beach out, Ruth steals third base as well! Unbelievable! pic.twitter.com/L2QnC3VmuX
— Jack Meyer (@jackmeyerespn) May 3, 2022
In just his first year with the Eagles baseball program, Ruth immediately clicked with his teammates. During practices, he impressed both players and coaches by “hitting tanks and laying down perfect bunts,” according to his teammate Harrison Beach. Ruth also made numerous connections in the dugout as well with his energetic and fun-loving personality. In his two years with the Eagles, Ruth has already formed multiple lifelong friendships with his new brotherhood.
“Neil’s the exact same off the field as he is on the field: Always standing out from people,” Beach said. “Neil and I have had a very special relationship the past couple years… He’s my boy, my throwing partner for life.”
Taking Off Running And Never Looking Back
Ruth made an immediate impact for the Eagles in his debut season. He initially started in center field before shifting over to left field. This move came after the arrival of then-freshman Ethan Szlachetka, who still starts in the outfield with Ruth to this day. During the 2021 season, Ruth maintained a .289 batting average (the third-highest on the team) while driving in six runs. He also stole 14 bases and scored 16 runs. Oak Hall ended up finishing the year with an 11-7 record.
While Ruth and the Eagles had some moderate success in 2021, the team saw a major breakthrough the following year. With a 13-2 record in the regular season, the Eagles had one of their most dominant campaigns in recent memory. Ruth served as one of the team’s leaders and go-to guys throughout the season. He finished the year in the team’s top three for hits, batting average, slugging percentage and RBIs. With his fantastic season in the batter’s box and some electric plays on the basepaths, Ruth generated instant offense for the Eagles any time they needed a spark.
And just like that, the Eagles are back in the lead! A line drive from Neil Ruth brings in Ethan Szlachetka and Jack Kuzmicki gives Oak Hall a 6-4 lead. The Eagles aren’t done yet either, with only one out so far. pic.twitter.com/FX5iMJRsOV
— Jack Meyer (@jackmeyerespn) April 22, 2022
One component of Ruth’s game that allows him to stand out from his opponents is his heart. He always treats each at-bat and each out like his last. Any time he sees an opportunity to help his team out, he pounces on it. This dedication and passion has put Ruth in the position to make several game-changing plays for Oak Hall. It also inadvertently led to one of the funniest sound bites from the Eagles this past Spring.
In Oak Hall’s first matchup with the Bronson Eagles this year, Ruth had one of his best games to date. He went 3-for-3 in the batter’s box, driving in three runs in the process. He also finished with three stolen bases on the day, thanks to his aggressiveness on the basepaths. Nevertheless, this aggressiveness also put Ruth in a bit of an awkward situation in the third inning.
As Ruth stole third base, Bronson’s catcher made an arid throw in an attempt to tag him out. Ruth now realized he had an opportunity to steal home. He turned the corner at third, full speed ahead. The Bronson infield had managed to corral the ball, but Ruth had already made it home. However, Ruth could not contain his momentum as he crossed the plate, leading to an unfortunate crash landing with the home plate umpire.
Midway through the third inning and Oak Hall leads 7-0. One of Oak Hall’s runs came on a wild play; Neil Ruth stole third base and made his way home after a wild throw from Bronson. As he crossed home plate, he collided with the umpire. pic.twitter.com/tvKtzma8Cn
— Jack Meyer (@jackmeyerespn) April 14, 2022
While Ruth and his teammates looked back at the play and laughed, it also perfectly symbolizes his “guns a-blazin'” approach to the game. No matter the inning, no matter the score, and no matter the opponent, Ruth always gives every play his all.
Oak Hall’s Newest Three-Sport Athlete
While baseball serves as Ruth’s bread and butter in terms of athletics, he has also found success in other sports at Oak Hall. He joined the Eagles basketball team in his sophomore year, around the same time he started playing baseball at Oak Hall. The Eagles finished with a 14-7 record in the 2021-22 season; Ruth will be one of the team’s only two seniors next season.
More recently, Ruth began practicing with Oak Hall’s football team. He made his first-ever career start over at free safety in the Eagles’ spring game against Trenton. Ruth’s football career with Oak Hall could not have gotten off to a better start. On the first play of the game for the Eagles’ defense, three Trenton receivers immediately sprinted downfield, looking for a deep pass.
However, the Tigers’ quarterback opted to make a quick throw to one of the receivers in Ruth’s direction. With the man in his zone caught off guard, Ruth cut off the route and snagged his first-ever career interception. Showing off his lightning speed once again, Ruth managed to take it all the way to the endzone for his first touchdown.
On Trenton’s next possession, they managed to drive the ball all the way down to Oak Hall’s 35-yard line. The quarterback attempted to make a tight pass to a receiver on a slant route. However, Ruth immediately met him at the ball and muscled his way towards another interception. This time, he took it back 78 yards on yet another pick-six. Oak Hall went on to secure a massive 42-6 victory, thanks in part to Ruth’s electrifying debut.
While Ruth has gotten off to a hot start in his football career and has had some bright moments playing basketball, he still identifies baseball as his primary sport. In fact, he believes that his time spent in his secondary sports allows him to indirectly improve in baseball as well.
“I feel like both [football and basketball] can make me stronger and help me in a lot of things that I use for baseball,” Ruth said.
Getting Ready For One Last Ride
As Ruth now prepares for his final year at Oak Hall, he hopes to continue blossoming with the Eagles. Not just in baseball. And not even just in football or basketball. But in life. A major contributor to his growth over the last three years has been his willingness to improve. Ruth has proven that he is willing to do whatever it takes to succeed and accomplish his goals, whether it’s in the classroom or on the field. This mindset is what has made him such a strong leader for the Eagles.
“[This year], his confidence and skills exploded to another level which help lead the team to the outstanding season we had this year,” Maris said. “Neil did a lot of leading by example and running hard on everything he did.”
Looking back on his first three years at Oak Hall, Ruth smiled with a sense of pride at what he has accomplished. Nevertheless, he reaffirmed that the best is yet to come for both himself and for Oak Hall baseball. And with someone as talented and devoted to their craft as Ruth, his best will be something to watch out for.
“I’d sum this season up as unforgettable… Nobody saw Oak Hall coming out and showing to be one of the more dominant teams in the area. Only us 12 players and the coaches did,” Ruth said.” “We believed in each other and ended up having one of the best seasons the school has ever had. We proved everyone wrong. And next year… just you wait.”