Jackson State senior Ariana Cruz had decided this spring to play every softball game as though it were her last.
And then her final season was over before she knew it.
The former Dos Pueblos High star had gone 4-for-5 in a doubleheader on March 11. She learned the next day, however, that the weekend series against Grambling State to open Southwest Athletic Conference play had been postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were kind of joking around about it, saying that spring break had been extended,” Cruz said. “We weren’t really taking it seriously until our coach called us into the locker room and told us that the season had been canceled.
“Everyone, especially the seniors, felt real emotional about it and started crying. After that, I honestly don’t remember what he said, I was in such shock. It was really hard.”
The last thing she remembers being told was to turn in her gear by the week’s end before heading home to California.
“It happened so fast,” said Cruz, an honors student in biology who waits at her family’s Goleta home while wondering what’s next.
She was leading Jackson State with a batting average of .346 and was tied for most runs scored with 15 in 24 games. She was also playing a near-flawless third base, with only two errors in 61 chances for a fielding percentage of .967.
Cruz felt she was playing the best softball of her life, “100 percent.”
“As a senior, you look at everything as though it’s the last time you’ll ever be doing it,” she said. “It’s your last fall-ball game, your last practice … You know it’s coming to an end so you want to work harder and push harder.
“But this was so unexpected. To not get a senior night, to not even get to start conference — to me, that was the most important thing because we were finally getting it all together, finding our groove and clicking with our chemistry.”
The NCAA has granted seniors who play spring sports an extra year of eligibility, an opportunity that Cruz is only mildly considering.
“I’ve still been working out, just in case I go that route,” she said. “I’m staying in shape and staying prepared.”
But she is also graduating this year and anxious to pursue a career in veterinary medicine.
“I’ve wanted to be a vet ever since I was little,” Cruz said. “When I got into high school and college, I started thinking about a career in nursing or as a P.A. (physician’s assistant).
“But it wasn’t until I had a biology class where I started shadowing veterinarians that I decided that’s what I really wanted to do.”
She’s been applying to graduate schools while also looking into several internships, including one in animal research.
“With the coronavirus, so much is still up in the air,” Cruz said. “Jackson State has a masters program in biology but nothing specifically for my field in general.
“But if I do play softball again, it would only be for Jackson State. I’m not interested in starting over to play somewhere else.”
Cruz, the daughter of Marine Corps drill instructor Reynaldo Cruz, had to transfer twice in high school. She played two years of varsity softball at Oceanside’s El Camino High School and then switched to Fowler High School near Fresno, batting .393 as a junior.
She transferred again as a senior to Dos Pueblos while moving in with her mother, Laura Rodriguez Sweningson, after her father retired from the military. The Chargers, 21-8, tied Buena for the 2015 Channel League championship while advancing to the CIF Division 4 quarterfinals.
“We had a good group of seniors that year,” said Cruz, who won All-Channel League honors, “but it was hard coming in as a senior, trying to earn a spot when everyone else had been there previous seasons.
“It was really hard on me, having after played varsity since I was a freshman, to have to start all over again.”
She stayed at Mississippi’s Jackson State for all four years, enjoying her experience as a Latina playing for one of the largest historically black universities in the country.
“We were a diverse team and did have a few other Latinas from Texas,” Cruz said. “I still talk to my roommates every single day – we’re planning a trip. I’m even still in contact with the seniors from my freshman year, they were so good to me.
“I’ve always been athletic and passionate for the game, but what I really learned as a player in college was the whole team experience. You’re always competitive and fighting for your spot, but the biggest thing I got out of college softball was to be selfless and a team player.”
Her parents were both accomplished athletes. Her mom starred in softball at Dos Pueblos and is still active in local slo-pitch circles.
“Her team is entered in a tournament in Las Vegas in July and she’s still hoping to go,” Cruz said. “My dad is also very athletic and he played baseball.
“I’m lucky to come from such an athletic family.”
Her brother Diego, DP class of 2019, was an All-Channel League defensive back in football. He also won two individual league titles in wrestling and finished as a CIF Divisional runner-up. Her youngest brother, Alonzo, also starred as a defensive back and wrestler as a DP junior last year.
“Diego just finished his first year in Iowa, wrestling for Luther College,” Ariana said. “This is actually the first time that we’ve all been together for a long time.”
Their conversations often turn to the lost spring of 2020.
“No athlete is ever going to forget this season,” Ariana said, “and the way it’s shed light on the fact that, yeah, you really should play every game like it’s your last … because it might be just that.”