When a new coach takes over the varsity reins of a high school athletic team, perhaps too often he or she emphasizes the need for a change in culture or a clean slate in order to build a successful program.
Michael Cruz is not one of those coaches. After all, it’s important to understand a culture and how it worked or didn’t work in the past before pushing for a change just for the sake of putting one’s own imprint on a program, right?
Announced last Wednesday, Cruz is taking over the helm of the Orange boys basketball program following the departure of Ashen Ward, who accumulated a 26-42 record during three seasons with the Lions.
The Orange cagers went 14-10 with an 8-5 mark in the Chagrin Valley Conference this past season, but Ward resigned to take the head coaching spot with his alma mater Vikings at Villa Angela-St. Joseph. He will remain a teacher at Orange.
Cruz, who has had head coaching stints at Massillon Washington and Cleveland Heights, said his coaching philosophy remains flexible, which he believes is key with the variety of talent and player turnover at the high school level.
“For me, I’m just someone who believes in a culture of discipline and accountability,” Cruz said. “I believe in working hard and playing together. And I think that, if we can build on the success that Coach Ward had and continue that culture where every single night Orange is going to play hard, they’re going to play together and they’re going to play smart, I think you give yourself a chance to win every single night.”
Perhaps most notable about the Lions’ 2019-20 campaign was their 11-0 mark on their home court.
Cruz, a 2004 graduate of Lorain Catholic, was a Division IV honorable mention all-state point guard who played with fellow all-Ohioans Chris Dalton and Brandon Neal. Lorain Catholic closed its doors in 2004.
After graduating from the Ohio State University, Cruz began his coaching career at the collegiate level, including stints as a grad assistant at UNC-Charlotte, a head coach at Lorain County Community College, where he was part of the program’s single-season wins record, and as an assistant at Lake Erie College.
“I made a decision a number of years ago, just with the lifestyle difference from coaching in college to coaching in high school, that coaching in high school was just a better fit for me in my long-term goals personally,” Cruz said. “So, I’m definitely committed to staying in the high school level.”
In Northeast Ohio high school hoops, Cruz was an assistant coach to Sonny Johnson at Garfield Heights when the Bulldogs had a 23-5 Division I state final-four campaign during the 2015-16 season.
The following year, Cruz took the head coaching job at Massillon Washington, where he coached two seasons with a 27-22 record.
“I really enjoyed my time at Massillon,” Cruz said. “It is a very proud town that cares deeply about its athletic programs. Coaching at a school with such a rich football tradition does have its challenges, but, overall, I am very proud of the work my staff and players put into building the basketball program back up.”
A two-plus-hour round-trip commute wasn’t ideal, so, when the opportunity to be the head coach at Cleveland Heights became available for the 2018-19 season, Cruz left Massillon to be closer to home.
Cruz led Cleveland Heights to a 13-11 campaign and a runner-up mark of 8-4 in the Lake Erie League. Cruz said he hoped to be at Cleveland Heights long-term, but he parted ways with the program after just one season.
“When I left Massillon for Cleveland Heights, I went in thinking that was going to be it and I was going to coach there and retire there and that would be the end of my career as far as coaching at schools,” he said. “And, unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.”
A teacher at Garfield Heights, Cruz returned to coach Johnson’s staff as an assistant this past season, when the Bulldogs finished 18-6 with a loss to Solon, 51-48, in the district semifinals.
Cruz said he knew he wanted to get back to a head coaching position but didn’t know it’d be so soon.
“I’m very fortunate to have worked with a lot of very great coaches,” he said. “And I might be biased, but I think Coach (Johnson) is one of the best in the entire state. He’s built a program and not just a team, and that’s what I want to do at Orange.
“Coach J’s built a program where every kid that walks through those halls expects to win and win at a high level. And he holds those kids to a high standard. And he’s got that thing rolling where it’s every single year when you’re talking about teams in Northeast Ohio that have a chance to get to Cleveland State and get to a regional, Garfield Heights is in the mix.”
At Orange, Cruz takes over a program that graduated nine varsity players, including its entire starting unit and sixth man. Only four varsity players from this past season were underclassmen, including rising seniors Tyler Hoffman and Chance Washington.
But Cruz was under a similar situation at Cleveland Heights, when he took over a program that graduated the top nine players in that rotation. Nonetheless, he still led the Tigers to a winning campaign.
“It’s certainly going to be a challenge, because experience is something that you can’t teach,” Cruz said. “It’s just something that you have to gain through actually playing those varsity games. But I am confident that we have a nice core group of younger players that are ready to step in and fill those roles at the varsity level.
“It’s certainly my job and my staff’s job to use the time we have between now and the start of the season to hopefully make practices as challenging as possible and to prepare them the best we can, so that when they take the floor for their first varsity game they’re going to be comfortable. And I’ve always believed that it’s our job to make practice harder than the game. “So, if we do that, then on Nov. 28, when this thing starts up for us for real, you know, they’ll be ready to go”
Coach Cruz said he hopes to have a long-term coaching position at Orange.
In addition to Orange being one of the top educational districts in Ohio, Cruz said he also was attracted to the coaching position after talking with several coaches and teachers in the school system.
“It seems like, no matter if they’re freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors, Orange kids are very coachable and they’re willing to work hard and sacrifice for the betterment of the team,” he said. “So, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how good of a coach you are, you have to have players that certainly have some talent but are also willing to buy into the team concept, and I think that’s something we have a lot of at Orange.”