Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Pouring the bulk of his energy into academics as he works hard to graduate from MacEwan in the spring with a degree in Supply Chain Management, Jose Cruz's primary focus hasn't been on the soccer pitch this fall.
As a result, the senior midfielder has seen action in just two games for the MacEwan Griffins this season.
One of those was last Sunday where he played all 90 minutes of a 2-2 draw at Calgary. Now, the midfielder gets set for the final two home games of his five-year career with a team that has helped him become a man.
MacEwan will host Lethbridge on Saturday (12 p.m.) and Saskatchewan on Sunday (12 p.m., Clarke Stadium, both games Canada West TV presented by Co-op). The latter is Senior Day for the MacEwan men's soccer team where five graduating players – Cruz, Erik Halabi, Andrew (Toba) Adeniji, Seth Johnstone and Ryan Gallagher – will be honoured in a post-game ceremony.
"Considering I wasn't able to play as I wasn't able to train throughout the season because of classes, it's going to be bittersweet," said Cruz. "We're not in playoffs, which is upsetting, but the fact I was able to play for five years in a program that just keeps getting better every single year is something I'm proud of, for sure.
"Knowing that I'll be leaving behind a great team that is very young and will keep getting better and better (is comforting). Hopefully, by next year we'll be able to make playoffs because the core group we have right now is really, really good."
Always a player who's been as important to off-field chemistry as on-field play, Cruz said he's taken the torch from his mentor Youssef Mimouni, who made him feel so welcome in his first season in 2015, and regularly takes rookies under his wing.
"Every single year, I find a few rookies (to mentor)," he explained. "I'll give them rides to the game, to practices and go for workouts with them. Every year I feel I have a bond with every new player.
"In my fifth year now, I feel like I'm really close with every player on the team."
Cruz eventually hopes to find a career in construction and help his father Jose with his business. His dad immigrated to Canada from El Salvador two years before Jose Cruz Jr. was born.
A soccer ball was introduced almost immediately, and little Jose lived on the pitch in his youth.
"He's just a big inspiration for me," said Cruz.
The inspiration that he's provided to the MacEwan men's soccer program is big as well.
"He's one of those guys you can lean on as a staff that's the right example," said head coach Adam Loga. "When we met him, he was a boy and now he's close to becoming a man. Just how he's matured and overcome different adversities over the course of three years we've had him as a staff has been something.
"We can highlight that and lean on as a staff and give props to in terms of his improvement both on and off the park."
Like Cruz, midfielder Halabi and forward Adeniji have been dealt an array of injuries that have kept them on the shelf for large portions of their Canada West careers.
"There's a couple of them in this senior group – Erik and Toba especially – who could just never seem to get healthy," said Loga. "Even a guy like Jose found himself run down a lot as the season went on. It kind of held him out of the lineup a bit and Halabi's similar. You felt for the kid. You just felt like he was playing catch-up. Right when he was about to get back to where he was, he took another knock or had to endure another injury. But he's kept grinding, kept a positive attitude, kept working and again just one of the nicest people the program's had. He's just great for the guys, great for the locker-room."
Erik Halabi battles against a Thompson Rivers player during a 2016 game (Chris Piggott photo).
Adeniji has brought a similar vibe to the room.
"He's very similar to Erik – just one of the nicest guys the program's seen," said Loga. "It's contagious. I can't emphasize that enough – talent comes in different ways. Guys like Jose, Erik and Toba bring different intangibles to the group.
"They're tough to recruit. The objective measurements of recruiting are easy. You know how many goals they have, you know how many assists they have, but it's the intangibles – those character pieces – that are the toughest to replace. For that, it's going to be difficult to find guys like them."
Andrew (Toba) Adeniji looks for an opening against Calgary last Sunday (David Moll photo).
Johnstone has been huge as the starting goalkeeper for the Griffins this season. He first played for the Griffins in the program's final ACAC season (2013) before returning in 2018. That was supposed to be his final year, but he came back for one final semester.
"Seth is unique," explained Loga. "We thought he'd be done last year, and he wanted to come back and finish up in the fall so he could get one more season. Here we were trying to recruit a goalkeeper and develop our own under our umbrella here to fill his shoes. As he's shown this season, they're big shoes to fill.
"We're thankful and blessed to have him this season. He's put together a tremendous second half of the year here. Just a great kid and great leader. We have our work cut out for us as a staff to find a replacement for him."
Seth Johnstone makes one of his program-record 16 saves in the most memorable game of his Griffins career - a 1-1 tie with Trinity Western in the snow last season (Chris Piggott photo).
Goalkeeper Ryan Gallagher will also be in his final weekend for the Griffins and serves a testament to perseverance. Since joining the team as a walk-on in 2016, he has yet to play in a match; instead serving as an important practice player for the squad.
"He just wanted to be a part of it," said Loga. "We need keepers in training as well. As you see, he's even gotten to the 18 a few times. Just great for the program. Great team guy, great character guy and much like the other seniors, talent comes in different ways.
"I think collectively this senior group has done a lot more for the program than they think. Objectively due to numbers (stats) they may think they haven't done what they would have liked, but subjectively, the intangibles they've done for the young group and the guys have been huge."
Goalkeeper Ryan Gallagher has helped the Griffins stay sharp in practice since joining the program as a walk-on in 2016 (Jefferson Hagen photo).