Melville-Park neighbors make schooling and athletics count

Orlando Cruz, Jr. and Jalen Paul

Melville Park resident Orlando Cruz, Jr. is a college admissions dean’s dream: exemplary student, award-winning athlete, hip-hop dance instructor, and conscientious member of the community.

As a sophomore track sprinter for the Wilbraham and Monson Academy Titans this past year, Cruz set a school record in the 400 with a 51:02 en route to the team’s Most Valuable Player award.

“I was average when I was younger,” Cruz said, “but I started to work on technique when I was in eighth or ninth grade. I’d do interval sprints – run a 400, then a 200, then a 100, and repeat – and long distance runs of five miles. I’ve gotten a lot faster.”

Cruz teaches hip-hop dance classes at the Dance Complex in Cambridge, where he gives lessons on “popping,” the full-body, herky-jerky dancing style that gives a dancer the appearance of half-robot, half-spaghetti noodle.

But it’s in the classroom where Cruz and his mother, Tricia Thomas, take the most pride in his accomplishments, stressing his high academic standing as a black student. “He comes out of a neighborhood in Boston here, and he values his education,” Thomas said. “It’s important to him for African-American boys to be able to get an education.”

From the time he was eight years old, Cruz has attended weekly Saturday classes on African-American studies at Harvard’s W.E.B. Dubois Institute, where students discuss, among other things, racial inequality and modern forms of discrimination. These themes have engendered in him an earnest desire to set a firm example.

“As a black male, I really do value education,” he said. “It’s valuable to know someone in my position as a black man can be educated and go far in life because it shows you can go as high as anyone else, regardless of color.”

Just down the street from Cruz lives another student-athlete from Wilbraham and Monson: Jalen Paul, who will play lacrosse next fall as a freshman at Franklin Pierce University in Ridge, NH.

He’d never picked up a stick until the eighth grade, but it didn’t matter. Paul immediately became smitten with lacrosse, which he dubbed a “mashup of hockey and football” – two games he’d previously played –and Marty Bowes, a midfielder for Major League Lacrosse’s Boston Cannons, took Paul under his wing.

Bowes would exhaust Paul by making him sprint the length of a football field before feeding him a flurry of rapid-fire passes, which he’d have to snare and quickly sling toward the net with both hands. “At first I relied on just my athletics,” Paul said, noting that many of his peers had been playing lacrosse since kindergarten. “I would get a lot of criticism from coaches saying I didn’t have enough stick skills – passing, catching, using both hands – but throughout high school I worked on my craft every day, playing wall ball and working on both hands because I’m a righty.”

In his senior season, Paul cleared the 30-goal mark, finishing second on the team and first among all Titans midfielders.

As he matured, Paul decided he would give back to the game and to MetroLacrosse, the Jamaica Plain-based youth organization that he credits for providing him his lacrosse foundation. For years now, he has volunteered for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday night.

“The field they practice on is 10 minutes from my house,” Paul said. “I told myself, ‘Why not give back? Why not show the kids you can do something from Metro?’ A lot of kids from Metro don’t play in college, some kids don’t stick with it. So I want to show them they can play college lacrosse.”

At Franklin Pierce, Paul plans to study health sciences and minor in marketing. He would like to work at a hospital in the future.

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