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Tuesday August 12, 2008Volleyball's 25: Aury Cruz

Gainesville, FL

By: Sean Cartell

UF Communications

 

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth of a 25-part daily series on GatorZone.com honoring the great players in Florida volleyball history (in no particular rank or order) leading up to the start of the 25th season since Gator volleyball was reinstated as a varsity sport prior to the 1984 campaign.

 

The idea that you could pinpoint a particular player who epitomizes the philosophy behind an entire championship-level program is rare. But what Florida head coach Mary Wise found in former Gator Aury Cruz (2000-03) was exactly that player.

 

Wise has built a successful program, which has to this point won 17 Southeastern Conference titles, made 17 NCAA Tournament appearances and has appeared in seven Final Fours, on a system that emphasizes a strong work-ethic, a team-oriented concept and having fun.

 

“Very rarely is your best player one of your hardest-working players,” Wise said in the February 2003 edition of Volleyball Magazine. “The best players aren’t always the most fun to coach either. Neither is the case with Aury, and that’s what makes her so special. She does things on the court that very few people in the country can execute. She can beat you in the front row and in the back row.”

 

Cruz’s journey to become one of Florida’s all-time volleyball greats began at the age of 4 in Puerto Rico, where she moved after being born in Brooklyn, N.Y. By age 15, Cruz was a member of the Puerto Rican national team, becoming the youngest player ever selected as the Most Outstanding Athlete for volleyball by the Puerto Rican Olympic committee during the XXXIV Olympic Awards in 1999. She was chosen as one of the world’s 10 best players after her team won the 2000 International School Sport Federation World Championship in Matosinhos, Portugal. She also played on Puerto Rico’s national team for basketball in 1999.

 

Cruz was the Most Valuable Player of the 1998 USA Junior Nationals and was twice named the MVP of her high school basketball team in Levittown, Toa Baja, Puerto Rico.

 

Right out of school, Cruz had the opportunity to play professionally in Italy, an article by the Florida Alligator on Oct. 15, 2003 reported. But Cruz turned the opportunity down; she wanted to come to the United States for an education and the chance to improve as a volleyball player.

 

“It was my goal to work on my mechanics first and then go to Europe,” Cruz told Alligator writer Andrew Abramson. “I’m really happy for myself for rejecting that first offer when I was 15, and instead working so hard the offers would still come in.”

 

So, Cruz headed to Gainesville to play for Wise and the Gators. Wise had been impressed by Cruz’s personality on her official visit to the University’s campus. According to a Sept. 18, 2002 article in the Alligator, Cruz went to the Florida football game taking place that weekend and “mingled just like a college senior would.”

 

“She knew more people in the stadium than I did,” Wise quipped. “Aury’s leadership comes from her experience, the confidence that she gives players around her and her work-ethic.”

 

According to an Oct. 20, 2000 article in the Gainesville Sun, Cruz was declared an academic partial qualifier at the onset of the season, meaning she could practice but not play. On Sept. 22, 2000, “Wise received word that the NCAA had accepted UF’s appeal, clearing Cruz to play, just four hours before Florida began its SEC schedule.”

 

“Aury Cruz has a chance to re-write the record book here,” Wise told Brandon Zimmerman of the Sun. “She has picture perfect technique. A lot of good jumpers don’t hit the way she does. Her technique is textbook. That’s not anything we taught her. She’s had great training and played against Cuba and some really good talent.

 

“She brings a wealth of experience, but the first thing you notice her is her jump and how hard she hits the ball. But there’s so many other things that she does well.”

 

Cruz had an outstanding freshman season, quickly becoming a fan favorite. Fans dubbed her dynamic deep serves as “Cruz Missiles” after her first match. The rookie was named the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year and a first-team All-SEC selection.

 

Cruz averaged a team-leading 4.32 kills per game and served a team-best 41 aces. She finished seventh in the SEC with 3.89 kills per game in the league and led all players with 0.58 aces. Cruz recorded double-digit kills in 22 of 25 matches and led UF in that category in 16 of the last 20 matches of the year.

 

As a sophomore in 2001, Cruz played in each of the team’s 30 matches and was named the SEC Player of the Year. She was a first-team All-SEC selection and the Most Valuable Player of the league tournament. Cruz earned first-team AVCA All-America honors, notching an impressive 31 kills and 20 digs in a match vs. Nebraska that season. The Gators lost to the Huskers in the regional final that season, finishing the year with a 28-2 record, but getting denied a berth to the NCAA Final Four.

 

That summer, Cruz was selected as a member of the Puerto Rican national team during its participation in the FIVB World Championships. The junior missed the early part of the 2002 season playing with her country’s national team.

 

“We said that we would look at this situation like an injury, but very seldom do players get better while they’re injured,” Wise told Jeremy Fowler of the Alligator in a Sept. 4, 2002 article. “This is a great opportunity to get better. For our young players to have to face those types of serves without Aury on the court, it’s just going to make us better in the long run. In this early part of the season, that’s all that’s important.”

 

During her time in Puerto Rico, Cruz got to play along side her big sister, Eva, also an outside hitter for the country’s national team at the time.

 

“It’s just like playing with other girls,” Cruz said in a Sept. 26, 2002 edition of GatorTalk. “The only difference is that we know each other so well. I know what she is thinking and she knows what I am thinking. I had to prepare myself mentally. You have to face the best in the world. It’s something very difficult to prepare for.”

 

Teammate Nicole McCray agreed with Wise, noting that the situation gave both the Gators and Cruz an opportunity to get better.

 

“We’ll miss Aury’s leadership and skills on the court,” McCray told the Alligator. “But it also allows other players on the team to play. It’ll be good for us. It will be a different learning experience.”

 

Cruz returned to the lineup in time for the team’s match with defending national champion Stanford in mid-September. That news was welcomed by Wise and the team.

 

“There was certainly a sense of relief when she arrived on campus,” Wise told Joe Manzo of the Alligator in a Sept. 12, 2002 article. “A year ago, Aury started every match as our primary passer. Her absence was a huge void. We had some young players in primary roles that normally wouldn’t be in this early in the season.”

 

At the World Championships, Cruz finished 13th in the world in scoring with 99 points and led Puerto Rico in scoring in each of its matches, included a 3-0 sweep of the Dominican Republic, a big upset in the tournament, according to the Alligator’s Manzo.

 

“I was really proud of what this Puerto Rican team did,” Cruz told GatorTalk. “Now that I am back, I plan to keep working hard and help my team win as much as possible. We shoot for the SEC title and then go from there.”

 

While Cruz was gone, Florida dropped a 3-0 decision to No. 3 Southern Cal in Provo, Utah

 

“It was sad when I heard we lost, I wanted to be there,” Cruz told Zimmerman of the Sun in a Sept. 12, 2002 article. “It was kind of hard to understand where I was and that I was needed at Florida also.”

 

Cruz returned in 2002 after having offseason surgery on both shoulders. According to Zimmerman’s article, Cruz played as many as four days in a row without proper medical care.

 

“It was so hard to find ice in Germany,” Cruz told Zimmerman. “I guess everything they drink, they drink by room temperature.”

 

Cruz was worried how her shoulders would hold up that season, especially with the responsibility she had as one of the team’s primary leaders. Nothing was more true than a Gainesville Sun headline on Dec. 6, 2002 that read Shouldering load: Cruz overcomes surgery to star.

 

“Definitely, I was a little bit afraid,” Cruz told Zimmerman of the Sun. “It was the first time I’d had surgery, but I had faith. I knew I could come back and be strong. I’ve been feeling much better. I haven’t had any pain on my shoulders and that’s a good sign.”

 

Wise was impressed with the way Cruz battled through her injury, before and after the surgery.

 

“What surprises us is how quickly she came back and at what level,” Wise said to Zimmerman. “What she did in Germany after not playing at all last summer says a lot about her and her heart. The surprise to us in the surgery was the extent of the damage. Not many players could have killed 31 balls against Nebraska with the damage she had.”

 

Cruz went on to help the Gators to the NCAA Final Four that season, which included a four-game win against No. 10 Washington State in the NCAA Regional Final. That season, she also was an AVCA first-team All-America selection and the SEC Player of the Year. Cruz finished her junior season third in Florida history with 158 service aces and fourth in career kills with 1,296. She recorded 17 double-doubles that season, including a 24-kill, 20-dig performance in the match against Washington State.

 

The 2003 season would be Cruz’s senior year and, though there had never been any doubt in past years, it was clear that she was the team’s leader. She had become just the second Gator in school history to win back-to-back SEC Player of the Year honors. She led the team in kills (4.62/gm), digs (3.11/gm) and service aces (54). Cruz recorded double-digit kills in all but three of the team’s matches her junior season.

 

“Aury is one of the premier outside hitters in the country,” Wise said in the outlook section of the team’s 2003 media guide. “Few players have both the experience and skills that Aury brings to the court. She has the ability to make game-saving plays from either the front or back row. Aury does what all the great players do – she makes everyone around her better.”

 

Cruz would again spend much of the summer on the road playing overseas. An Aug. 29, 2003 article by Zimmerman in the Gainesville Sun was entitled Cruz controls hectic travel schedule.

 

Cruz played in Mexico, Brazil and the Dominican Republic that summer in the Pan American Games with the Puerto Rican National Team. Upon her arrival to Gainesville after her summer travels, Florida left for Hawaii for a pair of matches.

 

“Mary was talking to me earlier and she said ‘Are you ready to come back home and play?’’ Cruz told Zimmerman. “And I said ‘Yes.’”

 

Wise credited Cruz’s adaptability for helping her get through the busy summer.

 

“Some players have a very small comfort zone in terms of traveling,” Wise said. “Aury has a huge comfort zone. She can easily adjust and adapt. She got here from Puerto Rico and, two days later, we went to Hawaii and just got back. I’m sure she’s looking forward to Friday.”

 

In fact, when Cruz arrived from her summer excursion, she got back to Gainesville at 12 p.m. on the day of the squad’s Orange and Blue match and was on the court competing by 1 p.m.

 

According to an article by the Alligator’s Andrew Abramson that ran on Aug. 25, 2003, Cruz had traveled more than 10,000 miles in just the week before arriving in Gainesville for that intrasquad scrimmage.

 

“It has been tiring, but not too stressful,” Cruz told the Alligator. “I don’t get a break until December, and even then, I have to travel with the national team for the Olympic qualifier.”

 

A Sept. 3, 2003 article by FYI listed Cruz as “The Most Dominant Gator Alive” in its headline saying that “Gator volleyball may have the best player in the nation in Aury Cruz.

 

“Aury sets herself apart from other players,” Wise told FYI. “She has the ability to make spectacular plays in spectacular matches, but she also makes spectacular plays in regular matches. She constantly plays at a high level.”

 

Cruz wasn’t one for getting caught up in the hype of such articles. In an article in the October 2003 edition of Volleyball Magazine, Cruz said “I really don’t pay attention to stuff like that. When the season is done, that’s when you look at statistics. I look at them for the ups and the downs so I can work on deficiencies and find out how I can get better at what I need to work on. I guess all that stuff means I am working hard in practice.”

 

Teammate and setter Lauren Moscovic noted Cruz’s humble personality as one of the keys to her teammate’s success.

 

“That’s a huge part of what makes Aury so awesome,” Moscovic told Volleyball Magazine. “She’s for the team. You would never know how many honors she has received by the way she acts.”

 

Cruz’s senior season was the finest in Florida volleyball history to date. The Gators defeated Penn State in three games to advance to their seventh Final Four. Florida toppled Hawaii in four games in the national semifinal match to advance to the championship contest for the first time in school history. Florida won the first game 30-25, but fell in a four-game match to Southern Cal.

 

Cruz was again a first-team All-America selection by the AVCA, finishing her Florida career as a three-time SEC Player of the Year selection. Both feats were first-time occurrences in UF history. She left the Gators as the career leader in kills (1,815) and total attacks (4,069), and ranked second in career service aces (220) and third in digs (1,320). She was one service ace shy of what would have then been the first triple-double in school history, recording 19 kills, 11 digs and nine aces against South Carolina on Oct. 26, 2003.

 

In the national semifinal, Cruz had 19 kills and 14 digs, while finishing with 18 kills and 18 digs against USC in the national title tilt.

 

“She’s done that her whole career,” Wise told FightinGators.com. “She makes everybody around her better. Even when everything wasn’t on the line, she still played great.”

 

Wise knew that in Cruz, she not only had a special player, but someone whose picture you would find when you looked in the dictionary to see what Florida Volleyball was all about.

 

“Aury is so special,” Wise told Volleyball Magazine. “She does what all great players do. She makes everybody around her better.”

 

END OF REPORT

 

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