Eugene Santa Cruz and the rest of Sahuarita’s football team have had nearly 365 days to evaluate the film from last year’s 21-0 loss to Lakeside Blue Ridge.

The Mustangs will have a chance to avenge last season’s shutout Friday, when they host the defending Division IV state champion Yellow Jackets.

Coming off a 7-4 season, a playoff appearance and a section championship, fourth-year coach David Rodriguez knows how imperative it is to the team’s success to start the season with a win. But Rodriguez also knows what he’s up against: Blue Ridge has appeared in six straight state championship games.

“They’re well-coached and going to be tough. I describe them as born winners,” Rodriguez said. “Thirteen state championships in their program’s history; they’re always a contender, top of the pyramid, in my opinion.”

Santa Cruz, a two-way lineman and team captain, will play for the first time since suffering a knee injury last year. He hopes it will be the start of a successful season.

The Star sat down with Santa Cruz on Wednesday to find out more:

Back stronger
and better

Santa Cruz can remember the exact moment he injured his knee: The seventh game of the season, against Rio Rico, on the eighth play of the game. An opponent rolled up on his right leg, instantly tearing his ACL and MCL.

“It was the first time I had an injury,” Santa Cruz said. “Going through my head when I got hurt was a lot of things in a short window of time. Not being able to play any more for the team, losing the season, possibly any scholarships.”

Santa Cruz has made a full recovery and hopes to show his leg is healthy. Arizona State and Pima College have shown interest in the linemen. A solid showing early this season could intrigue programs that might have been scared off by the injury.

Gentle giant

Santa Cruz wears No. 72 because it was the only jersey that would fit him upon arrival at Sahuarita.

Since he transferred from Sunnyside after his freshman year, eyes have been glued on Santa Cruz. Entering his senior season as a Mustang, he stands 6 feet 3 inches and weighs 330 pounds.

He has upped his bench max to 335 pounds and squat to 500 and spent the summer working to get his feet quicker and to play with a nasty mean streak.

“I expect him to be the senior leader. Everybody’s looked at him since he came to our school at 15,” Rodrgiuez said. “I expect him to love and enjoy and play full-speed on every moment on Friday nights.

“He’s put in a ton of work, and I need that work to pay off.”

Athletic family

Santa Cruz hails from a talented family: His cousins Sati and Sergio Santa Cruz play baseball at Sahuarita.

Sati recently returned to Tucson after spending the past weekend in Chicago, where he was the lone representative from Arizona in the Under Armour All-America baseball game at Wrigley Field. Though Sati played football in the past, he has chosen to focus solely on baseball.

“Athletics kind of run in the family; we talk about it all the time,” Eugene Santa Cruz said. “When (Sati) said he wasn’t going to play football anymore, it hurt. I wanted him to be on the team bad.

“I love watching him compete. … If he aspires to be an MLB player, go for it.”