My Story: Washington State Signee Gunner Cruz

Casteel Football at Verrado, 8/31/2018. Photo by Michael Rincon

Note from Sports360AZ CEO Brad Cesmat:Wednesday is College Football National Letter of Intent Day. We asked Casteel quarterback Gunner Cruz, who’s signing with Washington State, to lead off our “My Story” series.

Entering high school a lot of football players have the same dream: to play Division One football. However as the years go by that dream only comes to fruition for less than two percent of high school players nation wide. So, when I enrolled in Casteel High School in 2015 I knew it would be an uphill battle trying to contribute to the building of the program and school, all the while trying to get recruited to play at the next level. And of course I wanted to go on and play as long as I could, but when I was an incoming freshman all I knew was that I wanted to continue to play the game I loved with a group of my best friends I had been playing with forever.

The game has always been about that for me, the relationships I’ve built. And sure, it would have probably been easier to get recruited at a well known school like Chandler or Hamilton, but the relationships I formed with two of the most influential people I’ve ever met, Spencer Stowers and Sandy Lundberg, during my time at Casteel taught me lessons I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. And over everything my time at Casteel taught me that if you want something, you have to compete for it.

Coach Stowers was our head man in the football program through my junior year, and he was undoubtedly the best fit to come in and start a program. I remember the first time meeting him there was a camp going on for kids that were considering playing football at Casteel. As I approached the field the first day there were probably around 30 kids, less than half of which would make it to our senior year, and a host of coaches.

When I was introduced to Coach Stowers I was slightly taken back by how young he was, being in his thirties, but as I got coached by him I could sense that this was a man I would run through a wall for. Not to be fooled by his age, from that youth camp on to the last day he was at Casteel he managed the team completely, and undoubtedly earned the respect of all his players. He was an easy coach to talk to, but when we stepped on the field we knew it was no-nonsense and time to get to work. He taught me more about the game of football, and made it easy to grow as an athlete. Over everything, we knew he always had our backs. We developed this attitude that we’d always bet on ourselves and we’d never flinch because of the way he coached us, we had incredible confidence. This level of confidence has carried over for me into my everyday life.

Coach Stowers also knew how many of us dreamed to get to the next level, and worked incredibly hard to get college coaches to the school, and his players recruited. He loved the program like it was one of his own children and never hesitated to ask for more, so we could be successful. That’s why having such an understanding, personable, and hard-nosed principal was essential in the growth of our program.

Mrs. Lundberg was a woman maybe five-foot five, not large in stature, but her presence in a room was enormous. She allowed Coach Stowers to build the program freely and trusted his vision for where we were going. Outside of football however was where our Principal was most impressive to me. When we had our first assembly as a school in 2015, Mrs. Lundberg laid out her vision for the school. She said we were to be “uncommon” and we weren’t going to do things conventionally. She drew the comparison to a White Buffalo, how rare and elusive they were in the wild, which made them so desirable. She wanted us to hold ourselves to that standard, to be the White Buffalo in our communities, families, and lives and those words have rang in my ears since that day. I had a very good relationship with Mrs. Lundberg and contrary to common thought, trips to the Principals office were actually something I looked forward to. There was never an empty trip, as every time I walked out the doors I had learned something new, or seen a different perspective on how I should approach things. The lessons she taught me about being a leader and managing people translated over to the field, and community for me. Moreover, the work ethic she had and passion for the school rubbed off on the entire football program, which is why when the news that she had cancer stuck our team in the 2017 season it was like a sucker punch to the gut. She was a common face at all our games and fundraisers so the uncertainty surrounding the situation really took us back. I can vividly recall the day Coach Stowers broke the news to the team after practice. The field was silent.

Questions swirled and unfortunately there weren’t concrete answers. Which is why we dedicated that season to her. Of corse we put the symbolic “SL” sticker on our helmets, but for me it was a lot more than that. Our team did out best to embody her spirit of refusing to quit. She was still around the school, although not quite as often. Her actions continued to teach me life lessons throughout her battle though. When she spoke she still had the confidence and control of a room I strive to have. People continued to naturally follow her, and when we saw her on the sideline for our State game, it lit a fire under the team that carried us through that game. Being able to hand her the gold ball after the game is still one of my best sports memories. Mrs. Lundberg lost her fight with cancer this past summer, but her legacy reigns through our halls, and the lessons I learned from my principle will stay with my all my life. I will forever be grateful to have had the opportunity to know and learn from Mrs. Lundberg.

My playing experience at Casteel was unrivaled, being in the rural area on the outskirts of Queen Creek, I got to experience that small town football feel, while playing big time football and some storied programs. While the wins were great, and there is no feeling quite like wining a championship, the best part of my days suiting up for the Colts where the relationships I made with the guys in the locker room. I was fortunate enough to win a state title, go to the playoffs each year, and be a three year varsity starter, but all those things peril in comparison to the bonds I’ve made. The long bus rides, hotel stays, and hours of practice are the most memorable part to me.

I’ve been told that each team has a “personality” of their own, so to say, and if that’s true, then ours was quite unique. We had this balance of loving and hating each other all the same time. We would get heated in scuffles at practice, but then go out to eat after. That’s how it worked with us, we has the dynamic of a family more than a team. Our mottos of “All In”, and “Be a Champion” became gospel to us. We committed to the program and did our best to make championship decisions in all aspects of our life, and when we didn’t there was a consequence to pay. All the while we joked and made fun of each other. Each day in the program was a new adventure, but our motivation was always for the same cause, each other.

It was the end of my Sophomore year, my first varsity year, that I began to garner some attention recruiting wise. I was a big kid for my age, about 6’3 180 at that time, and that opened a lot of doors for me. While recruiting can sometimes be about measurable, in my experiences I’ve learned that its really more about the way you can seize opportunities in front of a coach, in order to get the ball rolling. That spring I had a handful of coaches come out to watch me throw, and some of them didn’t go as planned, some of them I threw great. I was dreadfully inconsistent in that recruiting period, as I was still just trying to figure this recruiting thing out. I took a trip up to Brookings, South Dakota to visit South Dakota State and work out for them in July of that Summer. At the end of my film session with the Offensive Coordinator, and workout for the Head Coach, they awarded my my fist scholarship offer. It’s a special feeling to know that the work you’ve put in was worth it, and the validation of knowing there was a school that wanted me to play for them definitely gave me a confidence boost. But the day was not over for me yet. In the car home from the stadium, Coach Stowers gave me a call and told me to reach out to Coach Napier, at ASU. Over the Summer I had built a great relationship with Coach Napier, and when I got off the phone with him I had my second scholarship offer in hand.

That day is one of the most memorable in my life, and it is the day that thrust me into an entirely new realm, the media of Arizona high school football. I had done some interviews and articles before, being a new school we did get some attention from the media and I was lucky enough to get to talk in a lot of those, but this was different. Within an hour of earning my offer from Arizona State I had done three long interviews that weren’t about the school, it was all about me. I answered them relatively easily, and felt like I had worded my answers well. It brought me back to when I was younger, probably around eight, I would ride with my Dad everywhere. He always said he knew I was going to play College Football, so on the rides he would just go back and forth with me asking questions. He taught me how to sound professional and to have a plan before I began to talk. At the time it seemed pointless, just having a conversation, but once I began to deal with reporters and media the skills I learned from an early age kicked in and it helped that process. Nonetheless it is a weird feeling. For the next couple days I felt like I was seeing my name all over Twitter, the newspaper, in articles online, everywhere. My mom saved all these stories in a box so one day I’d be able to go back and look at them, but in the moment it was almost overwhelming. I always had tried to carry myself well, but from then on out I never knew who was watching or waiting for me to slip up, so I kept my A-game on at all times.

As the media stuff eventually began to die down slightly, it was already time again for my junior season. It was a dream season, 14-0 record, and things just were great. This time when the recruiting cycle came around it was wild. Everyday I was working out for coaches at lunch or after school. For me, it was important to always be at school and dressed nicely, because you never have a second chance to make a first impression on a coach, and when you are vying for a $250,000 scholarship you better make a great impression. A mixture of Coach Stowers and my quarterback coach, Rudy Carpenter, got a lot of coaches there for me to throw for. It was a physically and mentally taxing time. Trying to balance school, my second sport basketball, football, and recruiting was intense. February 27, 2018 Washington State offered my my fifth scholarship and thats when the gates really opened for me. I continued to get offered by a host of Ivy League schools, along with other D1 schools, for the next few months and in the process of trying to narrow down the list I took several visits and made lots of phone calls to build the relationships with these coaches. Those were two really important things for me in my recruiting, to build a good relationship with the school I wanted to attends coaches, and to have a good feel for campus. In the end Coach Mike Leach and Washington State’s Air Raid offense was what I felt was best for me, and I committed to the Cougs’ on May 31, 2018. Making my dream from when I was six of playing college football, more of a reality.

When it came decision time it was definitely the hardest choice I’ve ever had to make. I had built a good relationship with the SMU, Princeton, Baylor, and Syracuse coaches, along with Washington State, and my visits had all been great. The recruiting world for quarterbacks is a little different, because most schools usually end up taking only one per class. That means when the quarterback dominos start to fall around the nation, you find a lot of commits at once. Recruiting and commitments for quarterbacks almost go in waves. This happened around the end of May, and I began to notice a lot of guys were starting to take their spots in their future programs, so it was time for me to pull the trigger on the school I felt best about at that time. Which was obviously Washington State. My visit to Pullman before I committed was just my dad and I, but we both loved the environment and how the town was crazy for football. The WSU staff was in contact with me every day, either a call or text, and my conversations with Coach Leach were interesting, in a good way. When talking to Coach Leach either in person or on the phone it seems like the topic is never football for long. Theres no telling where the conversation is going to go with him. In fact, when I called him to commit to WSU he was actually in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. He said he was on a fishing trip with one of his buddies so he was taking my call while looking for his next catch. The Washington State staff has been so welcoming and involved with me and my family to this day, which has made it really easy for my family and I to feel comfortable in my decision. I report to Pullman on the second of January, to start my classes and begin competing on the field.

When I started to get recruited at the end of my sophomore year, there then became the question of if I would try to graduate early and enroll in January, or just go through my senior year regularly, and start with my school in the summer. I decided it was best to keep my options open and give myself the choice if I wanted it, so I began to take extra classes online that summer. When my recruiting really caught steam in spring after my junior season, I noticed how valuable my choice was. Every school that came through asked me if I was on pace to graduate early, and besides the Ivy League, they all wanted me to. It even came to the point where some schools were only looking for a guy that was graduating in December. Throughout high school I’ve played basketball and ran track every year, and they are both really important to me. However, when I decided on Washington State I came to the conclusion that it was best for me to forego my senior season of basketball and track, senior prom, and all the other events that come with the last semester of being a senior and enroll early. It was by no means an easy decision, in fact it was tough to come to terms with the fact that I’d be leaving my friends an family six months earlier than everyone else. Now, in hindsight though, I am very satisfied I decided to continue taking the classes online and can leave early. I had some great conversations with Tyler Shough about his decision to leave early, and he said he had no regrets. Then, talking with my coaches from WSU, they explained that by graduating early you essentially get a bonus semester on scholarship. A student athletes eligibility clock starts in the semester of the first season of their sport. This means that by graduating early I could essentially get five and a half years of college on scholarship. Although it was an emotional and sad decision to make, in the end it only made sense for me to take advantage of my extra classes I had taken and head up to Pullman in January to start competing.

For all the success I’ve been able to enjoy, and all the challenges life has thrown at me, one thing has aways states consistent: I have always had my family’s unwavering support. From when I was a little kid playing youth football, I can remember by dad, Tex, always taking me back and forth to practices and workouts. And from when I started playing sports, my parents never missed a game. They’ve always supported the decisions I’ve made, trusting I could make the right one. Even as began to get recruited, they rejoiced with me, but never put pressure on me to make a certain decision. My parents have given me the opportunity to fail, but always have built me up if I happened to fall. In times where I doubted myself, they believed in me. And to me, that is the most important thing you can have in life. I have been so blessed to have a strong support system in my corner that has helped my dreams become reality, and have enjoyed every moment of it with me. Every Friday morning before a game, my mom, Aimee, has “game day treats” packed for me and my group of friends that came to Casteel together freshman year. Sealed with a little inspirational quote, it’s what sets the feel of game day for me. No matter how hectic her life gets or how busy she is the night before she always makes sure I have them for Friday morning. My dad is involved with every process of my life, reminding me every night to take my vitamins and helps me get the calories I need for the day to get to my desired weight. There are endless examples of these little things my parents do for me everyday that I am forever grateful for. These are definitely the things I’m going to miss when I take the next step in my life. However, I am confident. I’m confident my parents have raised me right, taught to always respect other people, but also to stand up for what I believe in. While going off to college is going to be tough leaving the most important people in my life, I know that there’s no place I could go that my parents wouldn’t continue to have my back and be there whenever I needed them. Although they already know, words cant express how thankful I am for my parents, and how much I love them.

Reflecting on my life these past four years has been great. I’ve experienced so many good time, as well as my fair share of darker moments. Nonetheless, I would not trade a day for anything. The people I’ve met and experiences I’ve had are invaluable to me. And to grow up at football games every Friday night, and watching state championships at University of Phoenix Stadium, its been crazy to be a part of the history of Arizona high school football. To see how far the state has come has been rewarding, watching Arizona become a recruiting hotbed is amazing to think of what the sport could look like in this state in just another couple years. From my experience, high school is sort of a trial and error type environment, you never really know what’s going to happen and plans change. I am thankful that Casteel High School gave me a place to try things and experience high school, while pushing me to succeed. There are countless people I have to thank for getting me to where I am today, without those people, I am on a completely different path. Washington State will be a new adventure, full of new stadiums, new classes, and new people, but my time in high school will always hold a special place. For those getting ready to start your journey, I offer you this – enjoy every moment, because before you know it, these four years will be gone.