Sophomore Receiver Paces Men’s Football


Courtesy of OC Athletics

Sophomore wide receiver Justin Cruz sprints down the field during a game against the College of Wooster Fighting Scots. Cruz leads the team with 47 catches for 710 yards.

Taylor Swift

With a roster of 22 first-years and a slew of season-ending injuries across all positions, the football team has struggled to produce winning results, heading into its final two games with a 2–6 record. Sophomore wide receiver Justin Cruz’s performance, however, has never wavered.

Coming off of his first year with a total of 19 catches and 173 yards, the Pleasanton, CA, native has made leaps and bounds in his second season. With two games left to play, Cruz has already recorded 47 catches and 710 receiving yards, with a season high of 14 catches and 242 receiving yards in the Yeomen’s 37–9 victory over the Allegheny College Gators. Both statistics earned him a place in the record books, breaking the previous school record of 239 yards held by Ricky Valenzuela, OC ’02, while also tying the record for catches in a single game. This stellar performance earned Cruz the titles of’s Team of the Week and NCAC Offensive Player of the Week.

Cruz attributes the majority of his growth to his maturity as a player and the support of his teammates and coaches. Although he started as a running back in high school, his impressive speed made him an obvious choice to excel in the “short, quick pass routes” required of a wide receiver, he said.

“Coach [Adam Sopkovich], the wide receivers’ coach, has done a really good job of developing me as a player and making me more of an actual wide receiver,” Cruz said. “The players around me have also done really well this season, which has given me a lot more opportunities.”

Cruz’s standout performance this season has a lot to do with his relationship with junior quarterback Lucas Poggiali. As a captain for this team, Poggiali sees Cruz’s performance as integral to his and the team’s success.

“[Cruz] is such a go-to guy on the field, and it makes my job a lot easier having good playmakers around me,” Poggiali said. “We have such a young group of receivers — seven of them — and he’s been such a leader out there as one of the oldest ones.”

Standing at 5 feet 9 inches, Cruz said that he has “always used [his] size as motivation to get better and be able to compete with bigger opponents.”

Head Coach Jay Anderson also views size as irrelevant given the amount of talent and skill seen in Cruz’s performance.

“At this level and any level, it’s not about size; it’s about ability,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how big you are or how small you are; it’s ‘Can you play?’ And he can play.”

Despite being an underclassman, Cruz has proven himself as a leader for his teammates both on and off the field. A Politics major, He has a dedication to balancing both academics and football that makes him an exemplary student-athlete; he has helped instill a similar drive in the younger players, such as first-year running back Khalil Rivers.

“[Cruz] told me early on [that] sometimes you have to sacrifice fun if you want to have success on the field,” Rivers said. “He showed me what it takes to be successful in the classroom and how much I have to study in order to feel prepared. He might not be the most vocal leader, but his actions speak volumes.”

Coach Anderson agreed with Rivers and noted that Cruz’s biggest assets are his character and dedication.

“I think his biggest strength is that he cares. I watch him interact with everyone on our team and on campus, and he’s able to integrate football and walk across campus by being courteous to any and everyone he meets; he’s just a good person,” Anderson said. “As anyone else as young as he is, he has to continue to grow and get a better understanding of the game; he has to get stronger and he has to get faster, but he’s on the right path.”

With two games left in the season, Cruz has the potential to break the single-season school record for receiving yards, held by Valenzuela at 990 yards. Although he admits he feels pressure to perform and surpass 990, he’s focusing on “keeping his mind off of it” because he “doesn’t want any distractions going into the last few games of the season.”

The opposing teams in the NCAC have their eyes on Cruz and his accomplishments, but Anderson is confident in Cruz’s continuing success.

“I don’t care what other teams think about him or if they know we’re gonna throw the ball to him or hand it off to him,” said Anderson. “They’ve got to stop him.”

Cruz will look to inch closer to the record and help the Yeomen seal their third victory this Saturday at home against the Ohio Wesleyan University Battling Bishops at 1 p.m.