It’s no ruse as team-first Cruz inks with D-I UNF Ospreys

NEWEST OSPREY – Springstead’s Kayla Cruz signed Division I with the University of North Florida Ospreys. During her signing ceremony she’s flanked by her brother Kyle Cruz. Also attending (back row) was her mother Denise and her father Angelo Cruz. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

SOFTBALL

Four-time All-County

selection hit a collective

.395 average with 98 RBI

By TONY CASTRO

HernandoSport.com

The 29th Hernando County fast-pitch season yielded a bountiful harvest unseen in these parts.

Three local players – Nature Coast Technical’s Chayse Skinner and Springstead’s Paige Pfent and Kayla Adrea Cruz all inked Division I national letter of intents.

In county history, that’s never happened before.

Chayse Skinner

Skinner signed with University of Tennessee at Martin while Pfent and Cruz inked with the University of North Florida Ospreys in Jacksonville.

Paige Pfent Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

Of the local trio, the 17-year-old Cruz, is the most adaptable two-way threat at the plate and on the mound.

Skinner might have been, but she tweaked a knee and suffered from tendonitis in her throwing shoulder at Dunnellon.

As a result, NCT’s fourth-year mentor, Jug Olmstead, basically pulled the plug on her pitching fulltime this season.

Though she missed three games, she enjoyed an outstanding campaign in centerfield.

Cruz 411

Kayla Cruz

Kayla was born at nearby Spring Hill Regional Hospital as the oldest of two siblings to Angelo and Denise Cruz.

Denise, who didn’t participate in athletics, attended both Central and SHS.

Her father, Angelo, who played football in high school, spent six years in the US Army stationed in Germany.

The stocky-built Cruz was basically raised on the diamonds.

At 3 years old, she was introduced to T-Ball and soccer at the Hernando County Family YMCA in Spring Hill.

At 6, she also opted to play recreational soccer at the Anderson Snow Sports Complex and played as a defender for six seasons.

During that same span, she participated in Dixie Softball for six seasons, mostly as a pitcher.

Ironically, when Cruz matriculated to Challenger K-8, she was cut from making the Navigators’ volleyball team, so she never played in middle school.

That might have been a blessing.

That opened the door for the brown-tressed and blue-eyed Cruz to begin a course of travel ball softball.

She began with Rich Woodall’s Overdrive, switching to the Lady Phantoms before playing with the Pasco Elite Gold.

After middle school, she enrolled at Weeki Wachee High School.

Kayla Cruz

With the Hornets, she solely concentrated on her passion: softball.

2015 was a bumpy ride as the US-19 crew finished 7-18 overall and was eliminated in the 5A-7 quarterfinals at Tom Varn Park by Hernando, in 4.5 innings, 11-1.

At the plate, the right-handed hitting Cruz collected 27 hits in 65 at-bats for a fine .415 batting average.

On the rubber, the Hornets’ ace fanned 128 batters at 14 years old over 131 innings.

But after finishing 5-18 on the mound, her confidence was waning.

She ultimately opted to join International Baccalaureate (IB) program at F.W. Springstead.

That decision, she says, changed her life.

Kama Woodall
Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

With Cruz and Kama Woodall coincidentally transferring to the Spring Hill campus at the same time, the moves transformed the Lady Eagles.

Before that pair arrived, SHS had floundered in district tournament play.

The Eagles suffered through three consecutive one-and-done’s – its worst post-season drought in the Craig Swartout run – all with Louisa Disi on the rubber.

Is it just a coincidence that once Woodall and Cruz joined forces, SHS began to click?

The Mariner Boulevard crew unfurled three straight county championship banners, collected three straight district titles and captured 2-of-3 Leopard Slam crowns.

At the epicenter was Cruz.

Springstead catcher Paige Pfent and pitcher Kayla Cruz meet on the mound before the final inning of the Leopard Slam VII Softball Tournament. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

Cruz factor

Over the next three seasons, Cruz enabled her team to win 76-of-88 games (86 percent).

She missed one game due to being deathly ill.

Over the other 87 tilts, she rapped 105 safeties in 269 at-bats for a stout .390 batting average. She smashed six homers and drove in 84 runs batted in.

She concluded her prep career with 132 career hits in 112 games.

She finished 98 RBI, or just two runs shy of becoming the sixth Hernando County player to ever drive in 100+ RBI.

Yet, her biggest improvement wasn’t at the plate.

On the mound, with a better supporting cast behind her, she finished 30-5 (86 percent) overall.

In four seasons, she fanned 379 batters across 351.2 innings pitched.

She walked just 41 batters during that stretch.

Her walks to strikeouts ratio was one per every 9.24 innings pitched – which is outstanding.

Kayla Cruz                            Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

Defensively, she also filled in – when she wasn’t pitching – at third base or first base.

Is it any wonder she was named All-Hernando County for four straight seasons, including the last three at SHS?

All the while, the consummate team player served as the glue for Swartout’s club.

To understand Cruz, one also needs to realize she is an outstanding student-athlete.

Besides a ton of community service, playing travel ball and high school softball incessantly, she’s maintained 3.4 unweighted and 3.9 weighted grade point average in the demanding IB program at Springstead.

Her favorite courses included the “Theory of Knowledge” and English literature because “I like to read,” explained Cruz.

Why softball?

On what Cruz took away from her prep softball experience.

“As you mature, you think about your teammates more and more,” shared the 5-foot-6, 180-pound brunette. “I was very proud of my team. I enjoy pitching and hitting.

“When you’re at the plate, I try to help the team out. You can help change the game with one swing,” she offered. “You realize, you can’t win games without pitching or swinging the bat.”

On which endeavor was easier, “Probably hitting,” responded Cruz. “As a pitcher I can tell where and why the opposing pitcher is throwing. Kama (Woodall) helped me by working my butt off to become a better hitter. I think I adapted easier to hitting.

On toeing the rubber, “I remember pitching 10 days in a row in travel ball. That’s when it hit me that I had to work harder to get better,” noted Cruz. “Pitching isn’t about how hard you throw; it’s more about them not touching your spins.

“At this level, everyone expects me to throw gas. The hitters from here on up can all hit fastballs,” she said. “As a pitcher, I love being in control of the game. For me, it’s all about adjusting to strike zone and the moment in the game.”

Joining Osprey nation

When Cruz whittled her choices down to college she visited three campuses: UNF in Duval County, College of Central Florida in Ocala and State College of Florida in Brandon.

University of North Florida Ospreys

On selecting the Ospreys, “My first-ever softball camp was at UNF,” recalled Cruz. “I decided early that I didn‘t want to leave the state and get hit with that out-of-state tuition expense. It ultimately came down to one thing. I’ve always dreamed of playing in the Woman’s College World Series.

“Playing for UNF gives me an opportunity to do that. I’ve wanted to play on that big stage and just experience it. Being a girl from a small town and making it all the way to the Series would be a dream come true.”

The Ospreys didn’t fluff the recruiting process. Cruz admits they guaranteed nothing.

Of the sales pitch, “They didn’t fake anything,” explained Cruz. “They told it to me straight that they can’t guarantee I’ll play or I’ll start. I appreciate that approach. I believe you should earn everything you get. The UNF coaches were super honest and friendly.”

In continuing her academics, Cruz plans on attaining a biomedical degree, go to med school and specialize in pediatric oncology.

“Cancer has affected my family,” explained Cruz. “It’s an area, I think I could help find a cure. I want to help kids and ease the pain on younger patients. My mom’s father passed away two months after I was born. This is something that’s very personal for me and I’d like to contribute to the cure.”

Springstead High’s Kayla Cruz sees the ball in to her glove during the game versus Belleview. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

Rewinding her prep experience

On whether Cruz felt ostracized in any way as the new kid on the block after transferring to SHS, “Honestly, if I knew what I know now, I wish would’ve enrolled at Springstead for four years,“ she revealed.

“… At first, when I got here, I wasn’t a member of the family. I was anxious when I got there. I don’t reject leaving Weeki Wachee, but I miss playing with some of them.

“I pitched nearly every game at WWHS,” noted Cruz. “But by the end of the season, it (losing) really got to me mentally. I really started questioning my pitching. Why couldn’t I get people out?

“… My only regret is the last game of each of the last three seasons. I’m not making excuses that we lost, because we did,” she said. “There’s always something to improve on. From the minute, I put on a Springstead jersey and we beat Land O’ Lakes, we had a chance to win every game we played. I didn’t feel that way when I played for Weeki Wachee.”

A few games can not be deleted from her memory bank.

“On that loss to Sunlake (on the final pitch of the game with two outs in the bottom of the seventh), “That girl just drove it. She got to it. I spoke to Paige (Pfent) as they celebrated. She told me I hit my spot. She just did her job as a hitter. It was a tremendous game (a 5-4 loss) that was decided by one pitch. One pitch can ruin a game.”

“I also remember the last four Crystal River games like they were yesterday,” added Cruz. “Crystal River has been our district rival. Even in the last game, I wasn’t nervous, but I get anxious.”

Madison DiCono tosses to first base. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

On getting intentionally walked three times in the district championship win, “That’s never happened before or since,” shared Cruz. “It was kinda surreal playing a game starting a 6 p.m. and pitching the whole game and not batting once. I asked blue (home plate umpire) if I had to take the last walk and he said yes.

“…I do remember Maddie (DiCono) making the last play in the district championship,” said Cruz. “That sealed three district titles; that just doesn’t happen.”

Cruz admits she enjoyed such a fine season despite being involved in January automobile accident.

She suffered through muscle spasms throughout the season. She opted against wearing a back brace.

Springstead High’s Kayla Cruz gets a high five from coach Craig Swartout after her three run homerun against Weeki Wachee. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

She said after her first game, she couldn’t bend down and take off her socks.

“That was pretty scary. I had to deal with it all season,” Cruz said. “But I waited two years for those big games to pitch. No way was I not going to play even if I had to drag myself out of bed. I wanted to those games as much as I could.

“… Looking back, I’m really proud of our team and how they came together. We’ve got enough good players to have another solid team next year.”

Looking ahead

Springstead High’s Kayla Cruz throws across the diamond to retire a South Lake batter. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

Cruz has three more travel ball tournaments remaining until reporting in August.

“I want to be independent, but I also want to see how things work out,” shared Cruz. “I’m gonna miss Coach Swartout and Emily (Kolwicz).

“My biggest concern going forward is becoming a better version of myself. I have to continue to work my butt off to be the pitcher I can be,” she added. “I’ve gotta get stronger and faster to be able to prove it to my coaches.”

On her legacy, “I’d like to be remembered as a teammate that helped others and helped pick up the team,” shared Cruz.

By the Numbers: Kayla Cruz (2015-18)

– Compiled by TONY CASTRO

HITTING

Kayla Cruz Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO
 

YEAR

 

YR.

 

GP

 

AB

 

R

 

H

 

2B

 

3B

 

HR

 

RBI

 

.AVG

2015^

9

25

65

1

27

2

3

0

14

.415

2016*

10

29

95

20

33

4

0

4

27

.347

2017*

11

29

87

13

38

4

1

2

32

.437

2018*

12

29

87

10

34

7

1

0

25

.391

 

TOTALS

 

112

 

334

 

44

 

132

 

17

 

5

 

6

 

98

 

.395

^ Denotes All-Hernando County selection @ Weeki Wachee.

* Denotes All-Hernando County selection @ Springstead.

PITCHING

Kayla Cruz Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO
 

YEAR

 

AP

 

GS

 

CG

 

IP

 

H

 

R

 

ER

 

BB

 

KO

S

O

 

W

 

L

 

ERA

2015

25

24

14

131.0

137

115

62

19

128

1

5

18

3.31

2016

9

8

7

52.0

35

14

6

2

62

3

8

0

0.81

2017

7

5

5

38.0

28

11

5

2

52

2

5

1

0.92

2018

21

21

14

130.2

82

34

24

18

137

6

17

4

1.29

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