Santa Clara’s spirit club (almost) turns 20
May 17, 2018
Men’s Basketball wasn’t supposed to come back from a 19-point deficit against Pepperdine. But there they were, underdogs ready to take on Gonzaga for the title of 2001 West Coast Conference (WCC) champions.
And the Ruff Riders, a loyal band of 40 or so students, had taken over a hotel in San Diego with the singular goal of being the rowdiest, most spirited fans any team could ask for.
Armed with party supplies, tiki hats, face paint and (allegedly) just a little bit tipsy, the Ruff Riders were a sight to behold as they walked in. Only their chants of “Broncos! Broncos!” punctuated the air.
Our Broncos—fans and players—were pumped.
“It was just one of those unique experiences where you look back and think, ‘I’ll never forget that trip,’” said Kevin McDonough, founding president of Ruff Riders. “The trip set a precedent of ‘Alright, this is something we need to do for as long as we can.’”
For the past 20 years, Ruff Riders has been Santa Clara’s official student booster club. The idea for Ruff Riders was hatched at a different game against Gonzaga, two years earlier. Toso Pavilion—the Leavey before Leavey existed— had a rare sell-out event. Bodies were painted red, T-shirts were made and fans cheered at the top of their lungs.
“It was absolutely awesome,” McDonough said. “After the game, we thought that there should be more school spirit. We were surprised more people didn’t get into sports.”
McDonough took it upon himself to partner with the Athletics Department to do what the Sixth Man Club and the Red and White Club before him couldn’t do: bring spirit to Santa Clara.
“The athletics, at least when we were there, would sort of take a backseat,” said Chris Helin, then vice-president of the club. “We tried to fight to get that changed and get the athletes the attention they deserved. We felt they deserved more than 10 students passively cheering for them.”
George Husack, promotions and marketing manager for Athletics, agreed. Leavey was being built, Brandi Chastain had just made Santa Clara proud at the Women’s World Cup and everyone was excited to put Santa Clara sports on the map. For Husack, that meant getting students involved.
“When you come to campus, you want to connect with something,” Husack said. “Selling this wasn’t tough with students like Kevin who could explain what the whole experience was about. Students are going to listen to students more than a guy who’s working in the Athletics Department.”
Sure enough, by the end of its first year, the club boasted 745 members and has since increased to more than 1,000 students. The club was honored as the top Registered Student Organization at Santa Clara in 1999 and was also named outstanding club of the year.
The accolades were well-earned. Their “highly-spirited” activities are what earned Ruff Riders their reputation as a fanbase not to mess with—whether it’s hurling clever chants at rivals, drawing the numbers of graduating seniors on their chests or camping outside of Buck Shaw Stadium for an entire weekend during a baseball series against Gonzaga.
But that first San Diego trip, nicknamed “disorder at the border,” remains a Ruff Riders Hall of Famer. Ynez Carrasco, one-time women’s soccer player and also the WCC’s Player and Defender of the Year for volleyball, remembers it fondly for the trouble she got in during halftime.
The halftime challenge was a game of knockout, Carrasco versus a rival fan. When knocking his basketball out with hers didn’t work, she tried swiping the ball from his hands. But he held on to it.
“I knew I was going to lose and I didn’t want to lose—so I got him in a headlock,” Carrasco said. “Security rushed the court and I was carried off to the back area because they thought I was trying to hurt him but I wasn’t. I was just trying to get him to drop the ball!”
Waiting for her in the back was then Director of Athletics Cheryl Levicks, her hands in the air and shaking her head. Security wanted to kick Carrasco out but soon enough her friends started chanting, “Bring her back!” Then the Ruff Riders joined in. Then the entire stadium was stomping their feet, yelling for her to come back. Levicks let Carrasco go back in.
“I remember busting the doors open and running back into the stadium as the Ruff Riders go crazy,” she said. “That’s the Ruff Rider’s spirit and love right there.”
The Ruff Rider love—when not rescuing passionate members from Athletics Directors—was aimed at student athletes.
“I know the student athletes really appreciate it,” Helin said, himself a former water polo player. “They used to tell us all the time. We’d be sitting, having lunch somewhere, and one of the basketball players would come up and say, ‘Thanks for the support last night.’ They loved it. I know I loved it.”
Although no longer official Ruff Riders, McDonough and Helin (high school friends, college roommates and Riders-in-crime) still happily display their Bronco pride. They both try to attend to away-games when they can and always ask Broncos they meet if they’re members.
Husack, now Head Coach of Men’s Tennis at the University of Alabama, still gets a kick out of seeing Ruff Riders in the crowd on TV too.
A photo of him and McDonough sits on his desk, a memento of his last women’s soccer game before he became the Head Men’s Tennis Coach at Santa Clara. And, of course, he calls McDonough up anytime DMX’s “Ruff Ryders Anthem”—from which the club’s name was derived—comes on the radio.
With the twentieth anniversary closing in, McDonough and Helin are appreciative and amazed by how the school has embraced Ruff Riders. Their goal had been to create the spirit they wanted to see during their time at Santa Clara—passing that onto future generations of Broncos was just a byproduct of their enthusiasm.
“We felt that spirit had to be there while we were there, whether or not that continued after we left,” Helin said. “We had hopes for spreading and passing that along but the intention was getting the campus behind the teams.”
Current President, Seve Mustone, is working on following in the footsteps of the Founding Riders. It’s been difficult to do so without a set budget, but they’re hoping to use the twentieth anniversary as a reason to go big next year with rallies and tailgates.
“By the end of next year, I hope that Kevin York, Nick Gress and myself will have made a profound difference on school spirit,” Mustone said referencing next year’s co-vice presidents. “We spent a lot of time doing Ruff Riders since our freshman year and I really hope senior year will be the year everything changes at Santa Clara.”
It was a good time for Santa Clara athletics twenty years ago. But championship titles weren’t so much the point as creating a community was. That meant showing up for their fellow Broncos, whether they’re losing or winning. In their eyes, not doing so was a disservice.
“You gotta dig in and give them the support,” Helin said. “If you’re not going to games, you’re robbing yourself of the environment and you’re robbing the school of the environment.”
Contact Perla Luna at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.