Tough competition pushes Lehigh's Darian Cruz to top of 125-pound class

Darian Cruz faced six opponents on Sunday. At a very methodical and deliberate pace the sophomore from Lehigh defeated every wrestler in the 125-pound weight class at the Bearcat Open in Vestal, N.Y.

Whether by fall, technical fall, major decision or decision, Cruz illustrated why he is ranked 15th in the country according to InterMat’s NCAA Division I rankings. As a team, the Mountain Hawks are ranked seventh in the USA Today NWCA Poll. Not that it matters.

“We don’t take a lot of stock in rankings,” Lehigh coach Pat Santoro said. “Everything has to be earned this year.”

Santoro recruited Cruz coming out of high school because he “had huge potential, was quick and athletic.” Adjusting to collegiate wrestling, Cruz needed to be more consistent. But in February 2013, Cruz took a major step toward becoming the wrestler he is today, and it was against one of the best wrestlers in the country.

The scene was Stabler Arena at Lehigh against powerhouse Iowa, the third-ranked team in the nation.

Cruz, a true freshman at the time, was scheduled to hit the mat first against Thomas Gillman who a month before won the 125-pound weight class at the prestigious Ken Kraft Midlands Championship, an event with college wrestling’s top talent.

To say Cruz was nervous would be an understatement. He said his internal monologue before facing Gillman calmed him ever so slightly.

“I am where I am supposed to be,” Gillman told himself as he went through his final warm-ups. “I am competing against the best so I can contend for a national title.”

Surprisingly in the first minute of the match it was Cruz taking down Gillman for an early 2-0 lead.

“The place blew up (with excitement),” Cruz recalled. “It was so loud. It was awesome and I was so fired up.”

Gilman battled back though and recorded two takedowns to beat Cruz, 6-2. Cruz was devastated having blown an early lead. Lehigh coach Pat Santoro though saw a win in the loss. Over time so did Cruz.

“Coach said (immediately) after the match ‘That is what we are looking for; what we are expecting,’’’ Cruz recalled. “He said. ‘You were in the match the whole time. You had him on the ropes at one point.’

“I was beating myself up at the time. Coach said that the loss would help me in the NCAAs.”

Santoro’s logic was spot on. Cruz made it to the NCAAs a month later thanks to a 28-9 record, leading Lehigh. He entered the NCAA unseeded and went 5-2 despite losing his opening match to finish seventh in the 125-pound division. Because of his first year success, Cruz became Lehigh’s first true freshman All-American in 24 years.

“We talk about that match all the time,” Cruz said. “At the time coach knew that I had what it took. I just had to believe in myself and believe in what he was teaching me and what he was saying.”

Last year technically was Cruz’s sophomore year. Because he deferred his eligibility and wrestled unattached Cruz is listed as a junior this year, but in terms of his wrestling eligibility he is considered a sophomore.

In 2014 Cruz had a 22-3 record won three tournaments and placed second in two.

This year the challenge is out there for Cruz to return to the NCAAs and for the Mountain Hawks to live up to their billing. The path to the NCAA Championships at Madison Square Garden is paved with top notch competition for Lehigh to square off against. There are six home duals and matchups with five of the top 10 finishers at last year's NCAA Championships.

"Expectations are high for everybody this year," Santoro said. "We have good senior leadership, good junior leadership and some young guys coming up. It's a good mix but we really need our leaders to be leaders at this point. People need to rise to the occasion because it gets really competitive really early."

That includes matches against wrestlers from Pittsburgh and Edinburg which Lehigh faces next week

As a freshman Cruz absorbed a lot. He learned the caliber of wrestler it takes to be a national champion. With two years under his belt, Cruz knows the caliber of wrestler he has to be and how to get there.

“It’s my time,” Cruz said. “I’m training differently now. I train (to go up against) the top 5 percent. I’m focusing on moves and techniques that will beat the top 5 percent of wrestlers in the country. Moves that will make me elite. Moves that will make me a national champion.”

Above: Lehigh's Darian Cruz takes on Iowa's Thomas Gillman in a match that showed him how good he could be. (Courtesy Lehigh Athletics)

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