The Lehigh wrestling team placed 12th overall at the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis, highlighted by senior Darian Cruz capturing the national title at 125 pounds and junior Scott Parker receiving his first All-American honors.
Cruz, a two-time All-American, won Lehigh’s 28th individual national title by defeating Minnesota’s Ethan Lizak 6-3. Cruz won 21 straight bouts to end the season, culminating in his championship.
“The hardest question that I’ve been asked is, ‘How does it feel?’ because it feels unreal, and I think it still hasn’t sunk in yet,” Cruz said. “I’m just so happy I can represent Lehigh and the Lehigh Valley well.”
Prior to the finals on Saturday night, Cruz knocked off the No. 1 seed, Iowa’s Thomas Gilman, 4-2, in sudden victory. Gilman was previously undefeated and had beaten Cruz earlier this year.
“I lost a lot of sleep the night before because I was so worried about losing to this kid,” Cruz said. “I wanted to win so badly, and it was a struggle mentally knowing that I had to defeat someone that kicked my ass earlier in the season. When I won, it gave me the best confidence boost for the finals the next day. I did all the work to beat the best kid, so I just needed to win one more match to get the national title.”
Along with Cruz’s performance, Parker also landed on the podium with his eighth-place finish in the 133-pound weight class.
Parker deferred eligibility last year to put on some weight to make the jump from 125 pounds to 133.
“It just switched my focus a lot, taking that redshirt year,” Parker said. “As a freshman, I came in at 125, and I was all about winning and being a national champ, but I wasn’t truly dedicated to it. I had to spend the whole summer and the whole next year getting bigger, and that just switched my mental focus to ‘you know, if I’m doing all this work, then I’m not going to fall short.’”
Parker was plagued with injuries throughout the course of this year. He injured his ankle on the first day of practice, leaving him out of commission for the first month of the season.
At the Southern Scuffle in early January, Parker tore his lateral collateral ligament, located in the knee, which sidelined him for another month.
Though he managed to find success this season despite these injuries, Parker said he thinks there is still work to be done if he didn’t finish on top.
“I’m definitely happy that I got on the podium,” Parker said. “I would have liked to be higher, but it’s cool getting on there for the first time. Going into this next year, I wanted to be a three-time national champion, but you know I can only do it two times now. So I guess I’m going to have to do it for the next two years.”
Despite Parker’s and Cruz’s individual performances, Parker said the team as a whole fell short of its goal of a top-10 finish.
Lehigh sent seven wrestlers to the NCAA Championships this year, but only two of them garnered All-American honors. Parker said although this seems disappointing now, the potential of those who made the tournament speaks toward the team’s bright future.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys that have got a ton of talent ready to step up,” Parker said. “We had two All-Americans, but we could have had five or six. We had guys losing in the round of 12 that could have gotten on the podium, and if that happened we would have been top 10 for sure.”
Cruz shares Parker’s excitement for the future. He said they would be going back to the drawing board as a team in the offseason to establish the lineup for next year while working on technique and fundamentals.
For Cruz personally, he said he’s relishing the chance to defend his title next year and will be using that to drive his offseason workouts.
“I’m going to have a target on my back, and I’m pumped to work that much harder to keep it there,” Cruz said. “I’m just going to keep grinding the way I know how to and just keep surrounding myself with good, hardworking people to push me to my limits every time we are working out.”