Coach Jesse Cruz watches his team workout during Thunder Mountain High School’s wrestling team practice on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Coach Jesse Cruz watches his team workout during Thunder Mountain High School’s wrestling team practice on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

‘Cruz’ control: Last-minute coach find turning out well for Thunder Mountain wrestling team

Jesse Cruz was an All-American at Western Colorado State

A Coloradoan is breathing new life into the Thunder Mountain High School wrestling program.

Jesse Cruz, 31, moved to town just three weeks before starting an assistant coaching gig with the Falcons this fall. The school teacher began running preseason workouts within days of his early September arrival. Now, almost through with his first season — the state tournament is next weekend — Cruz appears to already be making an impact.

Just take a quick survey of his wrestlers.

“He’ll be there to help you lose the weight last minute,” said sophomore Nate Houston, who trimmed off 7 pounds for one meet.

“I think that one of the best things that he brings to the table is the weight lifting,” sophomore Camden Erickson said. “Because before we never used to do that. We have weight lifting three mornings a week and I think that’s all helping us a lot.”

And then there’s Cruz’s boss, TMHS athletic director Jake Jacoby, who coached the team for three seasons and knows firsthand the challenge of managing the emotional and physical stresses of the sport.

[District announces activities to be merged]

“There’s a lot of these kids who maybe they’ve never wrestled before,” Jacoby said. “We don’t want to push those kids away and Jesse’s just incredible in that avenue of being able to identify a kid’s skill set, what they’re there for, and know those boundaries of how hard you can push a kid to get them somewhere great, but not too hard to get them out the door.”

When Josh Houston replaced Jason Boyer as the head coach during the offseason, his future assistant coach was not on his radar. Houston planned to name one of his volunteers, Sam Carney, as his assistant. Those plans got shuffled around when Carney enlisted with the National Guard and would no longer be in control of his fall travels. So when Houston caught wind of a wrestling coach moving up from Colorado, he got him on the phone right away.

“I had a couple of conversations with Jesse before he came up and tried to explain to him a little bit about the differences in the wrestling up here,” Houston said. “I was afraid of getting somebody that was just going to get up here and move away three months later. If I wanted to try to get somebody in here, it’s somebody I’m hoping that was going to have some longevity.”

Given Cruz’s enthusiasm for Juneau, it’s safe to say that box is checked.

“Shoot — we love it, it’s beautiful, good community so far and can’t say enough about it,” the coach said.

The Cruz family moved up from the small town Gunnison, Colorado, home of the Western Colorado State Mountaineers. A state title winner in high school, Cruz starred for the small college nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountains, becoming an All-American as a senior in 2011. After graduation, Cruz helped coach the Mountaineers for five seasons, later becoming a middle school physical education teacher.

After several more years working in Gunnison, Cruz and his wife Kate were ready for a change. When Kate was offered a joint position in Alaska’s capital doing tribal education with Goldbelt Heritage and Discovery Southeast, they acted right away.

“We jumped on it and made it happen,” Cruz said. “We’re excited to be up here.”

Cruz hopes to build the program over the next few years, saying “there’s no reason Juneau shouldn’t be the top team at least in Southeast, and maybe the state.” That distinction — best team in Southeast — has long belonged to Ketchikan, the winners of 10 consecutive Region V large schools titles.

One of the simplest ways to do this is to bring more kids on board. While high school wrestling has shrunk in recent years, Cruz noticed it’s not just wrestling dealing with low turnout — other sports are hurting for numbers. He ponders whether the former ban on middle school activities travel may have something to do with it.

“I’m trying to fix that gap where kids are coming through club, through middle school and finishing through high school,” Cruz said. “I don’t know where that gap is yet, like I said, but I’m trying to figure that out and still working towards it. We have some talented kids here that aren’t wrestling currently.”

Cruz grapples with the wrestlers and does the workouts alongside them. His willingness to endure suffering alongside his team is one way he’s been able to gain credibility with his new pupils.

“I’m a coach that’s hands on so I’m in there rolling around with the guys, and practicing with them and showing technique,” Cruz said. “I’m not afraid to go on a run with them or get a workout with them this morning. I’m going to be leading by example.”

• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or Follow Empire Sports on Twitter at @akempiresports.