Terry Bernal/Daily Journal
South City coach Steve Matteucci, right, hugs Luke Cruz after Cruz won the CCS heavyweight championship Feb. 25 at Independence High School.
The emotion demonstrated by South City senior Luke Cruz and longtime coach Steve Matteucci while hugging it out at the Central Coast Section boys’ wrestling championships was four years in the making.
Cruz had just made program history, becoming the first South City heavyweight ever to capture a CCS title, scoring a dramatic 3-1 overtime win on Feb. 25 at Independence High School over Branham senior Lucas Peters. After Cruz’s hand was raised in victory, he quickly retreated to his corner for congratulations from Matteucci and new Warriors coach Temo Cervantes.
Matteucci corralling his prize pupil with a bear hug was, in and of itself, a moving spectacle. The real emotion, though, was in what Matteucci said to Cruz in that touching moment.
“It was a special moment because he told me something against everything he’s always swore by,” Cruz said. “He always told me [winning] something, no one deserves it; it’s something you have to go out and get.”
But Matteucci validated Cruz’s historic achievement by telling him he did deserve the CCS title, Cruz said, “then he told me he loved me.”
Cruz, too, deserves the honor of Daily Journal Boys’ Wrestler of the Year.
Not only did he finish his senior season as the No. 1 ranked wrestler in CCS. He took home four previous tournament championships, including in the regular season with the Half Moon Bay Invitational Invite; the California Coast Classic; and the El Camino Colt Invitational; then in the postseason at the Peninsula Athletic League championships.
Rising to CCS prominence was the crown jewel of his high school career though. It was vindication after his junior year, when he fell short by taking second place in the CCS heavyweight bracket. This season, though, he stormed through the preliminary matches, winning the first two via pin, then outlasting Gonzales senior Jose Sanchez 5-2 in the semifinals before taking Peters to sudden-death overtime to win on a dramatic double-leg takedown.
“It’s still something I’m very excited about,” Cruz said. “I’d like to say it’s probably one of my biggest accomplishments, definitely.”
So far as Cruz’s goals are concerned, however, the ending to his season was bittersweet. The senior was on a mission to finish his varsity career by getting on the podium at the state championships, but he fell short, posting a 2-2 record to settle for placing in the top 16.
“Physically, I [felt] great,” Cruz said. “Emotionally, going in I was feeling really strong about it. But when it was all said and done, it wasn’t what we were planning for, so it took a big toll.”
Still, his two wins doubled the total of his junior-year performance at the state meet, when he went 1-2. What’s more, this year’s state meet hardly signaled the end of Cruz’s personal wrestling season. It’s just the opposite, actually, as he sets out to compete in two major freestyle events on the club wrestling circuit in April, first at the California Association Duals starting April 23 as part of the Bay Area Wrestling Association. He goes from there to the United World Wrestling Freestyle Nationals April 26-28 in Las Vegas as part of the Cardinal Wrestling Club out of Stanford.
“I think it says a lot to come off a season finishing the way he did and still getting after it,” Cervantes said. “I think a lot of guys would call it quits after the season he had.”
The gritty, low-scoring win in the CCS championship was quite a motivator though. Cruz didn’t endure too many close matches this season, which is generally how he likes it.
“I like to keep the point margin,” Cruz said. “I don’t really enjoy going into overtime. But a lot of my big matches have gone into overtime.”
Throughout his career, Cruz has experienced the highs and the lows of overtime matches. As a freshman in the PAL semifinals, we won by way of a stalling call in overtime against defending champion Jose Ayon of Half Moon Bay. As a junior, though, his loss in the CCS championship match to Christian Rebottaro of Monte Vista Christian was also an overtime match.
This year though, emerging with the CCS title fulfilled a dream he set out to achieve years ago. He first discovered the sport of wrestling through his older cousin Roko Smiljanic, who at the time was on the team at South City. Cruz and his best friend Patrick Locsin — who died in 2013 — set out to become standouts for Warriors wrestling.
Cruz and Locsin started attending South City summer wrestling camps when they were in middle school. And while Cruz’s only option was to wrestle people much older than him at those camps — mostly high school juniors and seniors — the opposite came to be throughout most of his varsity career as, since he was South City’s only heavyweight, he was consistently practicing against smaller wrestlers.
“He hasn’t had a lot of upper weight partners to wrestle with in the mat room,” Cervantes said. “So he’s wrestled with a lot of guys who were middle weight and that’s … where he took his shots.”
Cruz’s high school career started with tragedy though when, at the beginning of his freshman year, Locsin committed suicide. For Cruz, his pursuit of a CCS title was always akin to Locsin, as the two had long talked about chasing the prestigious achievement together.
So, in the wake of Locsin’s death, Cruz set out to realize the dream for not only himself, but for his departed friend. The pursuit inspired a heartfelt idea of legacy for Cruz, a legacy he summed up in two words — dream chaser.
“We’d talk about being in the PAL championships, CCS finals,” Cruz said. “It started out as a dream and it’s something I worked very hard to reach.”