Lehigh senior Ryan Preisch wrestles Penn State's reigning NCAA champion Bo Nickal on Dec. 3, 2017, at the PPL Center in Allentown. The wrestling team is focused on a national title as its season comes to a close. (Sarah Epstein/B&W Staff)

Lehigh wrestling looks to win the NCAA title as the season concludes

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Over the past few years, there has always been a piece missing from the puzzle at the end of the season for the Lehigh wrestling team.

This year, the pieces are falling into place for the Mountain Hawks, but not without a few hitches.

“I have a vision set at the beginning of each season that we are going to do it this time, that we will bring home that trophy,” senior defending national champion Darian Cruz said. “At this time, we need to fire from all cylinders, because we have the talent this year to win the national championship.”

No. 11 Lehigh (9-3, 7-1 EIWA) started its season on a high note with a 27-8 win over the No. 4 University of Michigan on Nov. 19, and remained undefeated until its 23-19 loss to No. 1 Penn State University Dec. 3.

The wrestling team then began the new year with a third-place overall finish at the Southern Scuffle in Tennessee, with Cruz winning his 125-pound weight class.

However, with the loss of two top-10 nationally ranked wrestlers in Lehigh’s lineup — seventh-ranked senior Scott Parker at 133 and fourth-ranked senior Ryan Preisch at 184 — a 23-14 upset loss to conference rival No. 10 Cornell University Jan. 19 set the Mountain Hawks back.

“When we knocked off Michigan, it carried our momentum throughout the first semester,” junior Jordan Kutler said, “but with a few of our top guys out dealing with injuries, it is hard to beat those top-10 teams.”

Kutler said top-10 battles have been too close, coming down to one or two points.

In another top-10 dual, the Mountain Hawks visited No. 9 Virginia Tech Friday night, and history repeated itself. The Hokies defeated Lehigh 20-17.

“There was just a lack of fight and a lack of heart when we played Virginia Tech,” Cruz said. “We made a lot of stupid mistakes, and it just didn’t seem like we wanted to be there as a team, and (coach Pat Santoro) really emphasized that to us.”

The Lehigh wrestling coach said all he wants is for his team to find excitement in competing.

Santoro said it’s frustrating to watch his wrestlers hold themselves back and not push over the hump.

“The biggest thing I tell them is not to run from their fears but to run toward them, in both life and wrestling,” Santoro said. “It is a good lesson that these boys need to learn.”

While the injuries of two of Lehigh’s top competitors have contributed to the team’s recent losses, Santoro said the teammates who stepped in have done a great job in their roles.

Santoro believes the problem his team is having is a mental one.

“Last year, when Cruz broke through and won the national championship, it really meant a lot to the program as a whole, and it taught the team to be confident, that (everyone is) right there with everyone else,” he said.

Kutler shares the same mindset about his team’s struggles.

The fifth-ranked wrestler said his teammates’ bodies know how to perform when it is time to step up, but he thinks the Mountain Hawks have been shutting down during important matches because of mental exhaustion.

“My dream has always been the same, to be a national champion,” Kutler said. “Cruz showed everyone last year that everyone is capable of doing it, that we just really need to be confident as a team.”

Cruz said the biggest factor the team needs to work on is maintaining its focus throughout the postseason. He said toward the end of the season, some of the wrestlers lose focus or confidence, and that affects the entire team’s momentum.

“We really need to peak at the right moment,” Cruz said. “I think we can bring home that trophy as a team, and my goal is to contribute to that by winning another national championship.”

Cruz said to win the national championship, each wrestler must trust his training and, when it comes down to it, remember to have fun.

The Mountain Hawks have three duals left in the regular season — one of which is against a top-10 opponent — starting at No. 8 Arizona State University on Feb. 9.

“After two tough losses, we need to go out there and fight,” Kutler said. “We need to keep making things happen. We know we are good, and we are good enough to win the national championship.”

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