Lake County Male Athlete of the Year: Warren's Juan De La Cruz
Editor's note: The Daily Herald is presenting our 2019-20 high school athletes of the year. We continue today with the Lake County Male Athlete of the Year, Warren's Juan De La Cruz.
As the son of parents who were born in Mexico, Juan De La Cruz, naturally, played soccer.
Once. And done.
"I didn't like it," he said.
Rather, De La Cruz, who was born in Waukegan and graduated from Warren last month, got his kicks playing football. Football liked him back. Call it a crush. De La Cruz developed a knack for crushing opponents. Ball carriers felt little love from the bone-crushing linebacker, who today stands 6 feet 3 and carries 220 pounds of muscle.
Sorry, Soccer. Football snagged De La Cruz, along with his kid brother, Danny, an incoming Warren sophomore and varsity-hopeful linebacker.
"You don't really see Hispanics playing football," said the bilingual De La Cruz, the third oldest (two older sisters) of four children of Juan, who's from Jalisco, and Maria, who's from Monterrey. The family lives in Grayslake. "My whole family really was soccer.
"Typically, Hispanics are not really built for football. I'm not trying to be mean or anything. But some of them are usually really tiny. Football is just a different sport. I really love playing football. It's better than soccer, I can tell you that."
A two-sport standout the last two years at Warren, De La Cruz is the Daily Herald's Lake County Male Athlete of the Year. The captain of the all-area football team as a junior, he followed up with another all-area campaign last fall in helping the Blue Devils put together an undefeated season until they lost to Lincoln-Way East in the Class 8A state championship game.
The Western Illinois-bound De La Cruz had a team-leading 89 tackles, including 7 sacks and 16 other TFLs, for a Warren team that allowed only 52 points the entire season. Blue Devils coach Bryan McNulty repeatedly called De La Cruz the heart and soul of his team's defense. It was the best season ever for Warren, which made school history when it avenged its 2018 quarterfinal loss by beating visiting Brother Rice in Gurnee to reach the state title game.
Warren had never advanced that far in the playoffs.
"What stuck out (about last season) was beating Brother Rice in the semifinals," De La Cruz said. "After losing to them our junior year, we went into that game (saying), 'We're not losing this time.' Afterward, we really had a fun time in the locker room. It was just the best memory ever. And it was at our field. You can't get better than that."
For the second year in a row, due to the football team's lengthy postseason run, De La Cruz joined the basketball team late. Like his junior year, he quickly emerged as one of the Blue Devils' best players. He averaged 11 points and 4 rebounds per game.
It was another sport he enjoyed more than soccer, though maybe not as much as football.
"Juan made us a more physical team and he also brought great intensity and competitiveness to drills, practices and games," Blue Devils coach Jon Jasnoch said. "His competitiveness, positive energy and mental toughness helped to pick everybody up and raise our level of play."
De La Cruz brought his football toughness to the court. Occasionally, an opponent might get crushed.
"Some teams wouldn't like me screening them half of the time," De La Cruz said.
De La Cruz competed in track (triple jump, shot put) as a freshman and sophomore, but focused the last two springs on gaining physical strength for football. The COVID-19 pandemic challenged the athlete.
"With everything being closed, you were just stuck at home basically doing nothing," De La Cruz said. "To get in shape, if you don't have weights, all you can do is simple pushups and pullups and run. It was just a horrible change. I felt bad for the people in spring sports."
De La Cruz had nearly 10 college-football offers, including Air Force and Eastern Illinois, before choosing Western Illinois after the season.
"I think the type of defense (4-2-5) they run fits me," De La Cruz said. "(Head) Coach (Jared) Elliott is an amazing coach and cannot wait to play for that man."