Royals slugger Cruz is crowned Series MVP

Jun. 1—Senior second baseman JJ Cruz says that his transfer two years ago to Hope International was "part of God's plan."

Particularly after seeing the fourth-seeded Royals' stunning ascent this week to claim their first Avista NAIA World Series crown in program history, one might be inclined to agree. Following his team's 14-6 title-game victory over Tennessee Wesleyan at Harris Field on Friday, Cruz was coronated tournament MVP, as voted on by media members and tournament officials.

He had been a powerhouse for the Royals from the plate all tournament — no more so than when he batted 5-for-6 with a home run and four RBI to spearhead a stunning 15-11 come-from-behind victory against second-seeded Georgia Gwinnett in the semifinal round on Wednesday. He totaled 15 hits and as many RBI through Hope International's six games, racking up five home runs and four doubles in the process.

Originally hailing from La Palma, Calif., Cruz began his collegiate career in 2020 playing 16 games for Cal State-Fullerton before the season was ended by the state's COVID-19 lockdown. He would return for two full seasons with the Titans, during which time he feels he "learned a lot" and came to understand "how to be a great player" — but his destiny ultimately lay elsewhere.

"I was meant to be here," he said. "That's how I always thought of it. I love these guys, and I'm just really glad we got this win."

Cruz led the team this season in hits (104), RBI (81) and home runs (17). He launched one last homer for the Royals on Friday, putting them ahead 3-2 with a shot over the right-field wall in the bottom of the first inning. He helped spark a big-hitting showcase that eventually blew the game wide open in favor of Hope International (45-16).

"Every guy on this team works hard and plays hard, and it's contagious," Cruz explained.

He finished the tournament with nine extra-base hits. To complement his array of offensive credentials, he was also named to the all-tournament team as a second baseman.

Along with the joy he derived from the on-the-field results, Cruz noted that he felt the experience of "just being here in Idaho with my brothers" was "probably something I'll never forget in my entire life."

"This is a beautiful place to play," he said. "A great night; great fans; it was so magical, I can't even explain."

What comes next for the 6-foot-3 fifth-year senior who has majored in human services?

"Whatever God has for me," he replied. "Obviously, I want to continue playing baseball, but whatever God has for me, I'm in for it."

2024 All-tournament team

1B — Trey Tarver, Arizona Christian

2B — JJ Cruz, Hope International (Calif.)

SS — David Rivera, Hope International (Calif.)

3B — Kane Kiunis, Arizona Christian

INF — Cristopher Munoz, Southeastern (Fla.)

C — Matty Mauer, Reinhardt (Ga.)

C — Charlie Muniz, Cumberlands (Ky.)

OF — Tucker Zdunich, Reinhardt (Ga.)

OF — Ajay Sczepkowski, Georgia Gwinnett

OF — Lance Dockery, Reinhardt (Ga.)

OF — Mason White, Indiana Southeast

DH — Dylan Lewis, Reinhardt (Ga.)

P — Trey Seele, Hope International (Calif.)

P — Brett Allen, Reinhardt (Ga.)

P — Blake Peyton, Tennessee Wesleyan

P — Andrew Herbert, Reinhardt (Ga.)

Most Valuable Player — JJ Cruz, Hope International (Calif.)

Charles Berry Hustle Award — Evan Magill, Tennessee Wesleyan

Gold Glove Award — David Rivera, Hope International (Calif.)