Jefferson Cruz knew time was running out for the Gilroy High boys soccer team to make a comeback against San Benito High in their Pacific Coast League Mission Division match on Jan. 18.
The Mustangs were behind 2-0 late in the second half when a San Benito player had the ball and crossed midfield. Cruz, who was trailing by a good 10 yards, went into full sprint mode and ran the player down before winning a 50/50 ball. Then, with one swift motion, he turned on a dime and dribbled the ball for a good 30 yards the other way before getting a shot on goal.
A couple of minutes later, Gilroy got the ball in San Benito’s penalty area, drawing a hand ball and penalty kick. Cruz had his shot blocked but deftly followed it up and banged home the rebound in the 73rd minute to get the Mustangs to within one goal.
Alas, the Haybalers scored on a breakaway just seconds before the final whistle to seal the outcome. Still, that play and others throughout the game showed what Cruz is all about: he plays every possession as if it’s his last.
“I’m passionate and I try to do my best every game because I don’t like to lose,” he said.
The Mustangs aren’t having the best of seasons from a win-loss standpoint, but it’s no fault of Cruz’s. The senior forward wins 50/50 balls perhaps like no other player in the area, has an indefatigable work rate and scores on a high percentage of his shots.
It’s a testament to Cruz’s work rate that he’s down to around 145 pounds compared to 160 before the start of the season two months ago. For a long time, Gilroy coach Armando Padilla said Cruz was predominantly a power player. But in the last couple of years, Cruz has developed the technical aspects of his game to go along with his strength on the ball.
Born in El Salvador, Cruz started playing soccer when he was 5 years old and started to progress nicely each year. However, Cruz said his living situation in his native country was far from ideal, as gangs are widespread, making for a dangerous situation.
“So when I was 13, I came over here for a better future,” he said. “Most of the people in El Salvador try to come to the United States and get a better future and away from the gangs. I came with my mom and brothers, but the rest of my other family is still over there. We come from a poor family and with time things have gotten better and better materially. I thank God we’re good right now. We’re happy.”
Although the Mustangs are in a rebuilding season, they have talented players to build upon going forward such as Dylan Johnson, Diego Rosillo and Diego Rivera. Seniors such as Cruz, Julian Ceja, Saul Hernandez and Daniel Jimenez have led the way this season.
“We’re going to keep on trying and be ready for each game,” Cruz said.
In the team’s match against Alisal earlier this season, Cruz said Padilla told him scouts from El Salvador were at the game to watch Cruz in action.
“One scout told coach Padilla that he liked how I played and they were going to talk and see if I could play with the national team,” Cruz said. “I was hella surprised and couldn’t believe it.”
Whatever happens, Cruz can be at peace knowing he has worked diligently to hone his skills and put himself in the best position to advance to a potential pro soccer career.
“I’ve been working on my skills to try to get better and improve on my weaknesses,” he said. “I came here and knew if I played good there would be scouts and my opportunity to play with the national team (would improve). I got the opportunity to play and I’m trying to make the most of it.”
Cruz said he doesn’t feel any extra pressure to make a national team or pro club one day, even though he knows it would help his family. He counts his mom as his role model.
“She’s my inspiration and she’s alway helping with everything,” he said. “It’s because of her I’m here with this great opportunity.”
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected] and (831) 886-0471, ext. 3958.