NA’s Cruz: Making good on an early season promise — OBSERVER ATHLETE OF THE WEEK

Lia Cruz Jim Hague photo

It was early September at Riverside County Park in Lyndhurst and the reporter was at the soccer field to do his weekly Athlete of the Week feature on a North Arlington soccer player Tiago Alves.

At that time, another North Arlington soccer player stepped toward the reporter and asked a simple question.

“What about me?” North Arlington girls’ soccer sophomore forward Lia Cruz said. “When are you going to write about me?”

Cruz was informed that if she continued to score goals and lead her team to victories, chances are she would get honored with the weekly feature.

Lo and behold, the time has come to feature the personable and confident young lady. Cruz has scored at least one goal in six straight games. She is among the top goal producers in northern New Jersey with 25 goals and for good measure has added 15 assists for the Vikings, who are enjoying a sensational 14-3-1 record that included two wins in the recent Bergen County Tournament for the first time in school history.

Incredibly the Vikings were seeded 28th in the Bergen tournament, but upset Westwood and Lyndhurst to advance to the quarterfinals, where they fell to Paramus.

The Vikings now head to the state playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I tournament against Brearley Regional of Kenilworth. They played at Rip Collins Tuesday and with a win, they could face rival Secaucus in the next round Friday at the Rip at 2 p.m.

No question, junior Arancha Antunes deserves a lot of credit for the Vikings’ success with 16 goals, but there’s no denying the rapid improvement of Cruz, who scored only nine goals last year as a freshman in the truncated COVID-19 schedule.

Going from nine goals to 25 in a single season is a dramatic improvement.

“I think we’re seeing her do all the little things,” said North Arlington head girls’ coach Mike Vivino. “She’s doing more tactical things. She’s made herself a little more well rounded.”

The goal explosion just might be tied to a position change, going from center midfield to forward.

“She did play center mid, but there was no doubt in my mind that she was going to be a forward,” Vivino said. “We kind of went back and forth with it, but she’s a good enough player to consistently put the ball in the back of the net.”

Cruz’s size – or better yet, a lack thereof at 5-foot-2 – was not a worry for Vivino.

“I wasn’t too concerned about her size,” Vivino said. “I’ll take a short player who can put the ball in the back of the net. She’s more technical than most players she goes up against. I’d rather have her and her technique.”

Vivino said that Cruz has been scoring goals with both feet. She’s predominately right-footed, but has scored with both feet.

That was an aspect to her game that Cruz worked hard to improve.

“Over the summer, I played hard getting prepared for this season,” Cruz said. “I wanted to improve both mentally and physically. I worked hard on my running and shooting and I wanted to get my shot better. It meant working with both of my feet. It was important for me to work on my left foot shot and it’s tremendously better. I’m really proud of that. I would say probably half of my goals this year are with my left foot.”

“She’s equally good with both feet,” Vivino said. “We encourage shooting at the goal, because good things will happen. She better shoot or she’s going to hear about it.”

A lot of Cruz’s improvement came from working on her own, going to Riverside County Park on her own to take shot after shot.

“I worked on my own time and I worked on myself,” Cruz said. “I wanted to get faster and stronger. I did a lot of exercises to get ready. I wanted to make myself more of a threat.”

Cruz, who conducted her interview with mother Carla (her biggest fan), father Jose and “nanny” Wanda Echeverria close by to hang on every word, said that she has always been confident about her skills.
“I’ve always believed in myself,” Cruz said. “I knew that if I worked hard and believed in myself that good things could happen. Being confident helps me a lot. I know I can do what I want to and accomplish what I want.”

Cruz said that she plans on playing in college.

“Or maybe even further,” Cruz said. “Of course, I want to go to college, but I want to play pro as well. I’m really fast and that’s a big advantage that I have. When my teammates send me balls, I have to run real fast to get there.”

Cruz’s teammates love to have fun with her as well. Just last week, Cruz left her cleats on the bench at Riverside County Park and they conspired to hide the shoes from Cruz, leaving her in her stocking feet as practice began.

“It was funny,” Cruz said. “I knew they weren’t going to disappear. I figured they did something with the cleats. It’s nice to have fun. We really all feed off each other.”

Cruz spends the offseason playing basketball as well, but she plays for a club soccer team based in Wayne called Pasco. It’s a top level club program that is run by a familiar face, namely none other than Vivino himself.

“She has some room to grow,” Vivino said. “I already told her that she better not get too comfortable. She has to make sure colleges take a look at her.”

And as for that personality, like asking a reporter if she could become an Athlete of the Week?

“She’s one of a kind,” Vivino said. “She’s the first one to come into training with a loud voice. She just has a unique way of grabbing someone’s attention. You rarely see a girl with that confidence and that personality. ”

As for college?

“She can play at the next level right now,” Vivino said. “Technically, she’s there. As she grows and develops, she will get better. I definitely think there’s a school out there who will be willing to take a chance on her.”

If the college won’t take a chance, then chances are Cruz – and her close knit family – would let them know. It’s just their way.




North Arlington sophomore forward Lia Cruz. Photo by Jim Hague



Learn more about the writer ...

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”