Senior Laike Gardner competes against sophomore Ian Brown at the highly anticipated match against Penn State University on Friday February 11, 2016. Lehigh takes on Penn State for the first time this season on Dec. 4, at Penn State. (Toni Isreal/B&W)

Entering enemy territory: Lehigh wrestling team prepares for dual at No. 2 Penn State


15,261 seats.

The capacity of Penn State University’s Bryce Jordan Center matches the magnitude of the historic rivalry between the Lehigh wrestling team and its cross-state foe.

This Sunday, the No. 11 Mountain Hawks will square off against No. 2 Penn State, the defending national championship group that has defeated Lehigh every year since 2009.

“I get excited for it, that many people to come watch wrestling,” said senior captain Laike Gardner, who has faced Penn State twice before. “It’s amazing.”

Both teams are undefeated entering the dual — Lehigh 3-0 and Penn State 2-0 — however, coach Pat Santoro said that in wrestling it’s not always about a team’s record on paper.

“Any win is good for momentum and confidence, but part of the training phase is you’re going to be flat sometimes,” he said. “You don’t have to win all of the matches, it’s if your guys are consistently fighting. You can’t always wrestle your best, but you can always fight your best.”

While the dual ahead is important, it’s not everything to the team, which is ultimately focused on the end of season tournament. A team can go undefeated all season, but what matters most to the team is performing at a high level during the NCAA Tournament in March.

“It’ll give us a really good gauge of what NCAAs will be like. Any time you can replicate that, it’ll help in the end of the year,” Gardner said.

And the team has been off to a good start. After beginning the year with a 33-7 in-conference win over Bucknell, the team won back-to-back road duals against Edinboro and No. 21 Pittsburgh.

Darian Cruz, Randy Cruz and Ryan Preisch all have posted a 6-0 record so far. Darian Cruz is ranked No. 4 in the nation in his weight class (125-pound,) and Randy Cruz is ranked third (141-pound.)

Santoro said the goal of the coaching staff is to allow its wrestlers to get better every week, to have a high performance every time out and to be consistent.

“Don’t think about it for more than what it is,” senior captain Drew Longo said. “It’s just one match, like stepping on the mat in the practice room, there’s no difference.”

The dual begins at noon on Sunday and can be followed on ESPN Radio or the Big Ten Network. Following Saturday, Lehigh will face tough competition such as Princeton, Drexel and Cornell as the season narrows in on the NCAA Tournament.

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