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Checkmate: Hill School Student Towers On-and-Off the Court

Most people assume that Solomon Ruddell, The Hill School class of 2017, is a basketball player. Given his towering 7’1” frame, such an assumption is understandable, and it also is correct. However, Ruddell is far from one-dimensional, as his passions extend beyond the basketball court.

Few people are prepared to see someone so tall sitting across from them at a chess table, yet at age 16 Ruddell was a nationally ranked chess player. His compassion and desire to help others also has resulted in Ruddell taking an interest in community service, and he has been an active participant in The Hill’s community service program.

Additionally, Ruddell is heavily involved in church activities and he is a serious student. Each of these passions are a piece of Ruddell’s life, and these various pieces serve as a reminder that there often is more to an individual than one’s initial perception of him or her.

“Five Hours a Day for Nine Years”

As his father and grandfather both are longtime chess players, Ruddell began learning the game with his father when he was seven years old.

“I enjoyed playing, and I kept at it mostly because I wanted to beat my dad,” Ruddell said.

Although he was homeschooled at the time, Ruddell joined his local elementary school’s after-school chess club to continue his development as a chess player. He frequently played with the club’s leader, Fred Brown, who noted Ruddell’s potential. Brown began giving Ruddell free chess lessons once a week.

For the next nine years, Ruddell devoted up to five hours per-day studying and playing chess. He began traveling for competitive matches at age 10, and when he was 16 years old Ruddell was the 20th ranked chess player in his age group in the United States, which is the highest ranking he achieved.

While he has not been able to devote as much time to chess since his arrival at The Hill, Ruddell remains a student of the game. He currently is a Candidate Master with a player-ranking score of 2100, and he hopes to soon improve his score to 2200 to achieve Master Player status. Players gain ranking points based on performance, largely by defeating lower ranked opponents and drawing higher ranked players.

“While I probably won’t have a lot of time to pursue Master Player status in college, I will definitely continue to play. The great thing about chess is you can play throughout your life, so I want to achieve a Master Player ranking later,” Ruddell said.

Why is chess appealing to Ruddell?

“It’s a beautiful game in which there are more than four billion possibilities for the first four moves alone,” Ruddell explained. “There’s also a chance for an individual to develop his or her own style of play.

“I also think that playing chess helped my early academic development. There are studies showing that playing chess improves math and science skills because of the logic and step-by-step approach involved in both. I struggled with math before I began playing chess, but since then my math has become stronger.”

Growth Spurts

Ruddell began playing basketball through sessions for the youth groups at his church that were organized by the pastor’s son. As he developed a talent for the game, Ruddell began playing competitively.

When he was younger, doctors projected that Ruddell would be 6’4” when he was finished growing. Ruddell was always tall for his age growing up, and he mostly played forward and guard with his AAU team. The summer between his eighth and ninth grade years, Ruddell unexpectedly grew five inches. This sudden growth spurt prompted him to switch positions to center as he began high school.

In his final year of playing AAU for his local team in Los Osos, Calif., David Benerza, the founder of the L.A. Rockfish AAU program, contacted Ruddell to see if he was interested in joining the Rockfish. Frustrated with his team at the time, Ruddell committed to making the 400-mile round-trip journey to Los Angeles on weekends to play for the Rockfish.

“The basketball in L.A. was much better than it was at home,” Ruddell said. “But, all of the traveling began to take its toll. I prayed for a better option, and not long after I met Coach Canosa.”

Phil Canosa, The Hill’s associate head boys’ basketball coach, met Ruddell when he was on the west coast and spoke with him about The Hill. Ruddell was intrigued by The Hill’s combination of high-level basketball and academic rigor, and he enrolled at The Hill for 10th grade in the fall of 2014.

His transition to prep basketball did not come without its challenges.

“I was 6’11” when I got to Hill, but I only weighed 190 pounds,” Ruddell said.  “Everyone expected me to dominate because of my height, but I hadn’t grown into my body yet after some quick growth spurts, so I struggled at times against older, more developed players. That first year was difficult.”

Ruddell, who now stands at 7’1”, has filled out physically over the past two years and he has become an imposing presence in the paint. He is averaging five rebounds-per-game this season and has recorded 26 blocks, including a career high seven in The Hill’s victory over Life Center Academy in early February.

“Solomon has worked hard and improved in his three years at The Hill, but his best basketball is still ahead of him,” said Hill head boys’ basketball coach Seth Eilberg. “He has an uncanny skill set, shooting touch, and feel for the game that few players his size do.”

In addition to his physical development, Ruddell’s game has benefitted greatly from Hill assistant coach Aaron Richardson-Osgood, Hill ’07. Richardson-Osgood played at Cornell University and was a member of Cornell’s team that reached the Sweet 16 of the 2010 NCAA Tournament, and he also played professionally in Europe. He has given Ruddell drills to help him learn how to play under the basket, and he also has worked directly with Ruddell in practice to show him how to be an effective big man.

A Chance to Give Back

Students at The Hill are required to do an afternoon activity during each trimester. On his first day as a Hill student, Ruddell attended a meeting that informed students about the various afternoon activities available that fall. He was pleased to learn of the School’s community service program and signed up for the first of what will be six semesters of community service by the time Ruddell graduates from The Hill in May.

Ruddell has done community service in some capacity for several years. He began doing service projects with his church when he was eight years old, and he quickly realized a fulfillment in helping others.

“My goal in life is to love God and love and help people, and I view community service as an opportunity to give back to others,” Ruddell explained.

Hill students who participate in community service are able to choose tasks from several options. Ruddell divides his time between tutoring elementary school students from Pottsgrove School District and volunteering at the Olivet Boys and Girls Club (also known as The Ricketts Center) with children between ages 8-14.

It is at the Ricketts Center where Ruddell is able to combine his passions. His volunteer work mostly consists of playing chess and basketball with area youngsters.

Ruddell estimates that about 90 percent of the children who want to play chess have no prior experience, so much of his time is spent teaching the basics of the game.
Once they know the basics, he said, he begins teaching simple tactics and strategies.

When he’s not teaching chess, Ruddell heads to the Ricketts Center’s gym to play basketball with the children.

How do children react to playing basketball with someone who is so tall?

“They ask me to dunk on them,” Ruddell said with a chuckle. “I try to explain to them that you don’t want to get dunked on when you play basketball, but they still insist on it and then they laugh when it happens. Mostly, we just try to have fun on the court.”

Jason Coady, the director of Hill’s community service program, notes Ruddell’s natural ability to interact with children.

“Solomon has an amazing way of connecting with children. He’s so natural and comfortable with them that they immediately respond to him,” Coady said. “Being seven feet tall, it’s easy to get their attention. Keeping their attention, and getting them to try things they’ve never done before, takes a special combination of passion for the activity and genuine interest in the children. What I think it comes down to is that Solomon knows who he is and he’s very comfortable working within himself. He doesn’t try too hard or pretend to be someone he’s not, and I think the children can sense that, too. He’s been an incredible blessing for us and for the community.”

His Next Move: Back to California

Having made an impact in Pottstown, Ruddell will return to California next year to attend the University of California, Irvine. He signed a National Letter of Intent in November to play basketball for the Anteaters, a Division 1 program that plays in the Big West Conference and is two years removed from its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

“I wanted to return to California, and I like the coaches at UC Irvine,” Ruddell said. “Coach (Russell) Turner worked with Tim Duncan at Wake Forest, and he also coached at Stanford and he was an assistant with the Golden State Warriors. His programs utilize big men well and have been successful in developing them.”

Two of the players Ruddell alludes to are current Anteater senior Ioannis Dimakopoulous, who stands at 7’2”, and 7’6” Mamadou Ndiaye, who left UC Irvine at the conclusion of the 2015-16 season to pursue a NBA career.

Ruddell has not yet decided what he wants to study at U.C. Irvine, although he noted that he is interested in business.

Regardless of what the next step of his journey holds in store for Ruddell, he surely will benefit from the lessons he has already learned at the chess board, on the basketball court, and through his desire to serve others – and the Pottstown and Hill communities also have gained by Ruddell’s example.

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