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Cruzing right along

Liz Cruz smiled when I asked her.

“Oh, really?” she said, somewhat puzzled.

I had just requested if Cruz, the No. 3 player on the USF women’s tennis team, would play against me.

In hindsight, it was a bad idea.

Because predictably, I struggled with everything Cruz threw at me, and lost the one-game match 40-15 (the point I won was pure luck) as coach Gigi Fernandez looked on.

Cruz has game, and I just learned that first-hand.

All in all, she treated me like she has her opponents all season long.

A freshman on the USF women’s tennis team, Cruz started her USF career with 12 straight wins. That hot streak landed her at the No. 86 spot in the ITA rankings, 31 spots ahead of the next-highest USF player.

It’s something Fernandez thinks is exceptional.

“It’s tremendous for a freshman,” she said. “You don’t expect that.”

Then, with just two matches left before the Conference USA Tournament, Cruz fell for the first time, 6-2, 7-5, to Cristina Arribas of Virginia Commonwealth last Sunday.She says she was sad to lose, but revealed she also felt relief.

“I was thinking about finishing undefeated,” said Cruz, whose identical twin sister Miriam plays tennis at South Carolina State. “But every time I went to play, it was like, ‘Oh my God, I am undefeated,’ and all the pressure and all that.”

Cruz, considered the best player to come from her home country of El Salvador, has gradually moved up the ranks on the USF women’s tennis team, starting at the No. 5 spot before reaching her current residence at No. 3.

“I think she’s earned that No. 3 spot,” said Fernandez. “She’s had a solid year and she’s playing better than the other girls playing the No. 3. She earned it.”

Cruz began the season winning three matches by a combined score of 36-10.Obviously, it was time to move up. And since the team had caught the injury bug, the opportunity was there. For the next five matches, Cruz competed from the No. 4 spot, where she earned a victory over No. 105 Alex Liles of Florida.

Then Cruz stepped into the No. 3 spot for the first time against Miami, who was ranked No. 11 in the nation at the time. Cruz went on to win USF’s only point with a 7-5, 6-2 win over Staci Stevens.

Cruz was born in San Salvador, where she spent her entire life before accepting a scholarship to USF eight months ago. She entered unfamiliar territory when she came here and admitted that, “Sometimes it’s hard. I miss my friends and family.”

But Cruz said she quickly felt comfortable with her teammates, four of whom come from Spanish-speaking countries.

“My teammates are very nice people,” she said.

And so is Cruz, who, behind all that talent and competitiveness, smiles an awful lot.

“She’s a great team player,” Fernandez said. “What I love about her is that there’s no excuses, there’s no complaining. She just goes out, she does her work and she wins.”

Guess that explains all the smiles.