Troy Athens soccer star Ryan Gruca is all smiles after scoring a goal vs. Grand Blanc this past fall.
Troy Athens soccer star Ryan Gruca is all smiles after scoring a goal vs. Grand Blanc this past fall. (Athens Boosters)

Athens boys soccer coach Todd Heugh said Ryan Gruca could make an immediate impact in a Division II, Division III or NAIA program in college.

He’s been a national champion with his club soccer team and a state champion with his high school soccer team.

Now, 17-year-old Troy Athens High School senior Ryan Gruca is looking for a place to play college soccer. He’s not worried about having to earn a spot in that team’s starting lineup.

“It’s OK if I don’t play right away in college. I’ve been on the bench a lot during my soccer career and worked my way into the starting lineup. I love a challenge,” he said.

“Of course, if I’m at a college for three years and I’m still not starting, that’s a different story. I may have to go elsewhere,” he added with a laugh.

Athens boys soccer coach Todd Heugh said Gruca could make an immediate impact in a Division II, Division III or NAIA program in college.

“Ryan hasn’t reached his full potential as a soccer player,” Heugh said.

Gruca is looking for what he considers his best fit for soccer and academics in college. He plans to pursue athletic training for a career.

Ryan Gruca
Ryan Gruca Athens Boosters

“I’d like to make a college decision in the next month, in time for the national signing day in late February,” he said.

Gruca is a 5-foot-9, 170-pounder who can play anywhere on the soccer field … defense, midfield or forward. But he’ll most likely play forward in college.

“I played mostly forward in high school, and I feel that’s my best position,” he said. “I also have the most fun playing there.”

Gruca certainly had fun in the summer of 2018, when he helped his U15 Waza Football Club nationals team win a U.S. Youth Soccer national championship in Texas.

His fun was tempered a bit by the weather in the Lonestar State.

“It was very, very, very hot down there,” Gruca said. “I did a lot of sweating. I never want to play in that kind of weather again.”

Gruca also had fun in the fall of 2019.

He scored two of Athens’ three goals in the second and final overtime period in the Red Hawks’ 4-1 win over Traverse City West in the Division 1 state championship game.

It was Athens’ first state title since 1997, when the Red Hawks ended a 16-year stretch during which they won five state championships.

Gruca’s goal with 7:20 left in the second OT put the Red Hawks (23-2-1) ahead of Traverse City West for good. His second OT goal made it 4-1.

“Ryan always gave us everything he had athletically, emotionally and mentally, and he was always dialed in and ready for big moments, even when he was a sophomore in that state championship game,” Heugh said.

Athens made it to the Division 1 state semifinals in 2020, but lost 2-0 to Traverse City West.

This past season had a different feel for the Red Hawks. Gruca was the captain of a young team that needed leadership and a role model, and he was there to supply both.

“I was happy with the season,” he said. “We got better as the year went along.”

Heugh said Gruca was a fine captain.

“Ryan brought the younger guys along with him,” he said. “He always demanded his personal best and he had high expectations for others.”

Athens finished 13-4-2 this past fall, losing 1-0 to archrival Troy in a Division 1 district semifinal game.

“We came so close to scoring against Troy three or four times in that game,” Gruca said.

Gruca had seven goals and 11 assists for Athens as a sophomore. He was No. 4 in scoring on the team with 18 points.

He became a full-time starter when he was a junior “and started taking over games,” Heugh said.

Gruca was the Athens team leader in goals, assists and points as a junior and senior.

He had 10 goals and 12 assists in 2020, and 17 goals and six assists in 2021.

Gruca didn’t play for Athens as a freshman, opting to play for his club soccer team. He said he’s glad he joined the Red Hawks as a sophomore and stayed on the squad for three years.

“I watched the Athens boys soccer team play when I was in middle school, and I had a lot of friends on the team,” he said about his decision to play high school soccer.

“Plus, I already knew Coach Heugh. I had him for a teacher in middle school,” he said.

That was in a video class at Larson Middle School. Gruca, then an eighth-grader, and Heugh talked about soccer often during the class.

“I’m glad Ryan played high school soccer. I think he fully enjoyed the experience,” Heugh said.

Gruca loves soccer. And he loves winning.

“I’m very competitive,” he said. “I also love being on a team. You’re a band of brothers that will have each other’s backs for life.”

Gruca’s parents are Jeff and Karen Gruca. He has a younger brother Jake, 14. 

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