So, just how much does Juan Cruz love bowling?
“He lives at the bowling alley,” said Union City High School bowling coach Ray Addas. “I think he’s there at the lanes [Bowl-Rite Lanes in Union City] more than the owner of the place. He’s continually there. He worked there. He’s always found there. I don’t know if he has any other interests.”
“Whenever I have free time, that’s where I am,” said Cruz, a senior at Union City High and one of the bowling team captains. “I’m there every day and I was working there for a while, so it eventually became my life.”
In fact, when Cruz was reached on the telephone for an interview, he had to admit, “I just came back from the bowling alley. I had to get a few games in today.”
“That’s how dedicated he is to the sport,” Addas said.
Incredibly, when Cruz was first introduced to the sport seven years ago, he didn’t even like bowling.
“I was about 11 years old and when I first started, I didn’t like it,” Cruz said. “I just went for fun. My friends started to go every day, so I went with them to be with them. I figured I could give it a shot. We all kept bowling more and more and I got used to it.”
Cruz then discovered that he became a student of the sport.
“When I went every day, I watched other people bowling,” Cruz said. “I picked up things from watching others and little by little, I got better. So I just kept going back to try to get better.”
After a while, Cruz developed an approach to bowling.
“Every shot I take, I try to focus,” Cruz said. “I bowl the game in my head. I get to the spot and see myself making a strike. Every time I’m up there, I picture a strike. It’s what I’m thinking about and I try to make sure that I get it.”
Two years ago, Cruz enjoyed the ultimate that a high school bowler could have. In one HCIAA match that was crucial to the league’s standings, Cruz bowled a perfect game of 300.
“After I had seven in a row, I said, ‘Oh, my God, I have a perfect game going,’ ” Cruz said. “There was so much pressure on me to keep it going and every strike I got, it got tougher and tougher. But I was so pumped every time I went up there. I just threw my ball well and it just happened.”
It has been the lone perfect game of Cruz’s career.
However, last weekend, Cruz had the biggest victory of his bowling life.
He competed in the North Jersey Singles Classic tournament at Parkway Lanes in Elmwood Park, competing with more than 120 of the top bowlers in northern New Jersey.
“I wasn’t sure what I could do when I got there,” Cruz said. “I just decided to go there and play my game.”
The tournament was set up with each bowler competing in three qualifying games. Then they take the top 32 bowlers, bowl one game down to the top 16, then down to eight, then four and finally a head-to-head competition between the final two.
Cruz had an impressive start, rolling a 725 series with games of 215, 245 and 265 to finish the first round as the sixth seed. He moved through the playoff rounds with games of 210, 236 and 226 to advance to the finals against Alex Prell of Wood-Ridge.
In the title round, Cruz had his lowest game of the day, bowling a 204, but it was still enough to capture the championship of the tourney.
And for his efforts, Cruz has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
It marked the second straight year that a bowler from Union City won the North Jersey Singles crown. Last year, Cruz’s teammate Omar Espinal, while bowling for Emerson High School, won the title. Espinal also competed in this year’s tourney and finished seventh overall.
Cruz had a sensational tourney, averaging 228 over the seven games, some 25 pins better than his seasonal average.
“He has always come up big in big situations,” Addas said. “He rises to the level of the competition. He knew it was a big tournament and came up big. He’s someone I can rely upon in big matches.”
Addas said that he spoke with Cruz before the season and told him what was expected.
“I was straight with him from the beginning,” Addas said. “I told him that we needed a big year from him if we were going to be good. He took that challenge head on with a full head of steam. He knew that he’s a senior and that this was it. He had to come up big and make it the best season for him.”
“I know I have the ability to win and I have to be able to go after what I want,” Cruz said. “It’s a very good honor to win this tournament. I really wanted it. Last year, I tried too hard because I wanted to win so bad and didn’t do well. This time, I made sure I did everything right. This is going to give me confidence for the rest of the season.”
Addas believes that the tourney title is just the tip of the iceberg for Cruz.
“It was huge for him,” Addas said. “I keep reminding him that it’s just the beginning. With the big events coming up like the county and the states, he has to be ready. He has to keep going like this, because that’s the only way that this team will have success. He has to come up big all the time, then the rest of the team will follow. If he goes bad, then the rest of the team will have a bad day. He’s that important.”
Cruz is more than just a key bowler. He also likes to keep the team loose with his antics.
“He likes to joke around and pulls pranks on everyone, including me,” Addas said. “He has no shame in putting it on me at times. He’s an outgoing kid whom everyone likes. He’s also willing to help. He organizes practices on his own and gets everyone going. He really cares about the team, but he also likes to have fun.”
“When I’m bowling, I do goofy moves to make sure I keep everyone laughing,” Cruz said. “I have to make sure that they’re not getting down and they’re staying up. I think it helps.”
So does winning big tournaments, like the one Jose Cruz won last weekend. – Jim Hague