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All Kidding Aside, Ruggiero Fits Right In

By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 16, 1998; Page C9

NAGANO, Feb. 15 — This fall, high school senior Angela Ruggiero stared at a stack of college applications that all seemed to ask the same essay question.

"They wanted me to write about a meaningful experience in my life," Ruggiero said. "I wanted to write them back and say, 'Hey, could you wait two months on that? I'm going to the Olympics.'."

At 18, Ruggiero is the youngest member of the U.S. women's hockey team that will play for the gold medal against Canada on Tuesday. Born on Jan. 3, 1980, she is too young to remember the Miracle on Ice, but she believes the U.S.-Canada rivalry may be just as intense as the atmosphere at the Lake Placid Olympics. The women's teams played a 13-game exhibition series before these Olympics that Canada won, 7-6. Then in a round-robin game Saturday, the Americans stormed back from a three-goal deficit to win, 7-4, and even the series.

Each game has been more physical than the next, and with all the intrigue building toward Tuesday, Ruggiero figures she would have had a pretty good essay.

"Oh, I definitely could have written about that," she said, pushing her straight, shoulder-length blond hair behind her ears every few minutes. "They're the type of team you never get tired of; they are the best competition we're going to see.

"They're expected to win, and every time the U.S. goes out and beats them, they sort of have to explain why it happened. There's definitely a lot more pressure on Canada. They're going for national pride, and in the U.S. it's not as big a sport. Hardly any Americans even know [women's hockey] outside New England and Minnesota."

That may have been true before the Olympics, but with all the attention women's hockey has garnered here, Ruggiero may find a whole new audience for her sport when she returns to the United States. Of course, before she can bask in all that new regard, she is going to have to finish high school. A senior at Choate Rosemary Hall, Ruggiero took the fall and winter semesters off so she could tour with the U.S. national team and participate in the Olympics.

She is still scheduled to graduate from the Connecticut school this spring, although she has some English and art credits missing from her transcript. Working her education around her burgeoning hockey career is nothing new, however. Ruggiero was picked to play on the national team at 15.

"We really never worried about her because she has such a great maturity level," said Ruggiero's mother, Karen, during the intermission of a recent game. With blond hair and bright eyes, she is easy to spot as Angela's mother. The red, white and blue No. 4 painted on her cheek is another small giveaway.

"At first, it was a little strange because there she was, 15 years old, and she was among all these adult women. But they really have been great to her. They took her under their wings, and she's really part of the group."

Leading the group is more like it, teammates say. On the ice, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Ruggiero has become one of the squad's most solid defensemen. She can be extremely physical against a team such as Canada, but she also has an arsenal of offensive skills that can dazzle. In a recent game against Japan, Ruggiero got the puck behind her own blueline, skated through all five of the Japanese skaters and then scored.

Moments like that spark talk that with more experience Ruggiero could become one of the greatest defensemen in the women's game. But with all of her hockey potential, it's Ruggiero's off-ice demeanor that draws even more raves. People seem to just congregate around her, aware something fun is about to happen.

"In the locker room, she'll just start dancing," said 19-year-old forward Jenny Schmidgall, the closest in age to Ruggiero. "She does get-down dancing, to any music, but rap music really gets her going. We call her Homey G.

"It's great because she'll do whatever, and she doesn't care what anyone thinks. She's really funny. She likes to crack jokes, and she's outspoken. Anything she wants to say, she says."

Over the summer, Ruggiero was one of several athletes selected to be part of a Visa commercial. Her part was simple: Wearing a Visa sweat shirt, Ruggiero was supposed to run out of a door. Unfortunately, she ran into the door.

"She lost her entire front tooth," U.S. forward A.J. Mleczko said. "It was so funny, really. I mean, it's got to be one of the most painful things, but she's in absolute hysterics. She just picks up her tooth, and she's laughing, laughing, saying it must not have hit the nerve because it doesn't hurt at all. Now she's got a cap instead of a tooth.

"It's just the way she deals with things. She's a great kid, beyond the hockey. She's a goofball, and she always wants to be a part of things. She just doesn't want to miss anything life has to offer her."

Mleczko, a senior at Harvard, said she has been trying to figure out subtle ways to persuade Ruggi ero to come to Cambridge next year. Schmidgall, already committed to the University of Minnesota, has done a lot of talking about how nice it is to live somewhere cold.

Ruggiero applied to both schools, as well as to Dartmouth and Brown. But since her essays have been completed, she said, she really hasn't been thinking about college too much. What she is looking forward to is the independence.

"Her father makes her call home every day," said Karen, whose husband, Bill, is watching the Olympics from Michigan with Ruggiero's siblings. "So for her 18th birthday, she said that's what she wanted as her present, that she didn't have to call each day. That lasted a few weeks; now she's the one who wants to call, especially with all of this going on.

"It's the Olympics. She's only 18, but so far it's the experience of her life."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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