K.J. Ruffo's phone kept ringing. One call after another from college baseball coaches.
This was shortly after he had gone to a Baseball Factory showcase event at the University of La Verne in California as a catcher last July, but when his team's pitcher was injured, he was asked to give it a shot on the mound.
The Putnam High School right-hander topped out at an eye-popping 94 mph in his brief stint, good enough to impress the college coaches that he had a great arm, regardless of where he displayed it — from behind the plate or throwing to it.
That very night, the University of Portland offered him a scholarship, and that was the prelude to the succession of calls the next morning, including from coaches at Oregon State, Oregon, UCLA, and USC. Those offers were for either partial scholarships or to walk on, and he kept coming back to the Pilots' offer.
"I couldn't pass that up," he said.
Ruffo, a 3.8 GPA student who hopes to major in business and marketing, signed a national letter of intent with UP on Nov. 13 — the first day of the early signing period. Putnam staged a ceremonial signing Tuesday.
He'll be a Pilot next fall.
"It's a dream," Ruffo said. "I cannot believe it's happening, but I'm glad it is."
Ruffo was named to the all-Northwest Oregon Conference first team as a catcher last spring when he batted a league-best .462 (36 for 78) with eight doubles, four triples, one homer, 14 RBIs, and 26 runs scored in leading the Kingsmen (16-12) to a berth in the OSAA 5A state playoffs.
He made the rounds at several regional showcase tournaments and got his name out there as a prospective college catcher with help from Josh Warner and Baseball Northwest.
He then took a leap of faith when he followed a suggestion from Canby catcher Sergio Rodriguez and explored an opportunity with Baseball Factory, leading him to a tryout camp at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer that in turn landed him the opportunity to play in front of college coaches at the July 17-21 tournament in La Verne.
On the second day of the tournament, he was behind the plate when the pitcher on the mound felt something pop in his pitching arm.
"We didn't have another pitcher," Ruffo said. "We had another catcher and someone said, 'We need to see how hard you can throw.' I was like, 'I'm not a pitcher. I can't throw.' But then I was like, 'All right,' and I took my catcher's gear off and borrowed somebody's glove and went up to the mound."
Ruffo said the umpire gave him 14 warmup pitches and the first eight were in the dirt.
"I felt so bad for our catcher," he said. "I've got to give him credit. Clayton McAllister is his name. He worked and I hit him so many times with the ball.
"My ninth pitch, I threw 88 mph — I know because my dad and his friend were sitting right behind the radar gun. Then I threw 92, then 93, and then I hit 94 three times. I heard somebody say, 'Ninety-four,' and I'm like, 'That's not right. There's no way that's right.'
"I could not believe that I could throw that hard."
Ruffo's stock as a college prospect skyrocketed then and there.
"After I threw that hard, the buzz went around like wildfire," Ruffo said. "The University of Portland offered me that night and they wanted to get me right then.
"The next day, I had a bunch of Division I schools calling. I felt like a businessman on the phone."
He spent two weeks mulling over his options while he continued to audition for a few scouts, confirming that what he did in La Verne was no fluke.
When the time came to make a decision, Ruffo said he narrowed his choices down to Oregon State and Portland.
"OSU just wasn't a good fit for me," Ruffo said. "UP had what I was looking for."
He's glad to have that decision behind him now.
"The recruiting process was very stressful," Ruffo said. "It's cool to have those schools talk to you, but at the same time it gets to a point where you're thinking, 'I don't want to contradict myself and I don't want to Monday-morning quarterback myself with all that's happening.'
"There was a time when I didn't know what I should do. And, luckily, my dad, my coaches, and some other people helped me choose exactly what I needed to do. After I committed to UP, it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders."
Putnam coach Chad McGowan said the Pilots of getting a talented player with an incredible work ethic.
"K.J. is a natural behind the dish," McGowan said. "A lot depends on whether they go full-on catcher with him or if they just straight try to develop him as a pitcher.
"I think once they get him on campus, they'll kind of know what they have a little bit more. He's a freak athlete behind the dish and I think that would be a shame if that didn't get utilized, but you never know.
"When you've got a kid with a stud arm, a lot of times teams want to get that stud arm on the hill. I know we do. And that's something that we're still working through."
Ruffo said he wants to do whatever he can to help the Kingsmen win this spring.
"Wherever Coach McGowan needs me," Ruffo said. "If he needs me to throw, whether it's close or relieve ... anything. I don't know exactly where he's going to put me. He might even have me start.
"But we have a lot of really, really good pitchers — Nick Geertsen, Jayden Junta, Austin Hayes, Tanner Drog — and I think those guys need me behind the plate."
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