Lehigh senior Darian Cruz faces off against the University of Michigan’s Drew Mattin at the Leeman-Turner Arena on Nov. 19, 2017. The Mountain Hawks will compete in the EIWA Championships this weekend. (B&W Staff/Michelle Wolff)

Lehigh wrestling remains focused, optimistic heading into EIWA Championships

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The Lehigh wrestling team wrapped up its regular season with a 25-10 win against the University of Pittsburgh at Grace Hall on Feb. 18 and has shifted its focus to this weekend’s EIWA Championships in Hempstead, New York.

After finishing second at the championships last year, coach Pat Santoro’s squad registered another winning season on the mats with a 12-3 overall record and a 7-1 conference record. Lehigh stands at No. 8 in the country with four top-10 wrestlers — No. 2 senior Darian Cruz at 125 pounds, No. 10 senior Scotty Parker at 133, No. 4 junior Jordan Kutler at 174 and No. 3 senior Ryan Preisch at 184.

The Mountain Hawks pushed through each of their outings this year, improving their record from last season. In Lehigh’s toughest matchup, the team battled No. 1 Penn State University in a narrow 23-19 loss at the PPL Center in Allentown on Dec. 3, 2017.

For Santoro, it’s duals like these that help strengthen the team. He said the tough losses throughout the season didn’t discourage his wrestlers but kept them focused on the future.

“They’ve gone out there with the mindset of trying to get better every week,” Santoro said. “The ultimate goal as a wrestler is to practice, and the whole season we’ve just been practicing for the postseason.”

Junior 141-pounder Ryan Pomrinca attributes the Mountain Hawks’ success and strength to how special this year’s team is.

“I think this is one of the better teams we’ve had in recent years,” Pomrinca said. “We’re doing well in the lineups, and (we’re) really filling out every spot.”

Cruz agreed and said this season’s team is “different,” and although the team is young, he sees a distinct initiative in the Mountain Hawks’ performance.

“The younger guys aren’t afraid to go out and try to win,” he said. “(They’re) taking risks. That’s something you can really learn from.”

The performance of the team’s experienced upperclassmen is another factor in Lehigh’s success this season.

This season, Cruz — the returning NCAA champion in the 125-weight class — posted a perfect 22-0 record, shaking off any potential championship hangovers. His contributions to the team as a leader were as important as his performances on the mat.

Cruz believes helping lead the team has made him a better wrestler, especially in light of injuries to seniors Cortlandt Schuyler, Parker and Preisch.

“I understand why these younger guys look up to me,” Cruz said. “This helps me keep my i’s dotted and my t’s crossed because I need to set a great example for them.”

The impact of Cruz’s leadership registered with a talented group of underclassmen. Standout freshmen Jimmy Hoffman at 141 and Matt Parker at 125 posted a collective 30-7 record.

With a deep and dynamic roster, Santoro said he expects his team to perform well in postseason play. His goal is to take a wrestler from each weight class to the NCAA Tournament, and he recognizes that while the team has high expectations of its members, they also have high expectations of themselves.

Pomrinca said he believes the Mountain Hawks will not shy away from postseason pressures but rise to the occasion.

“We’re training hard enough that we’re prepared to beat everyone we’re supposed to beat, and more, in the tournament,” he said.

Pomrinca credited Lehigh’s coaches, who he said are the best in the country, for the team’s level of preparation heading into the championships. He said he has complete trust in the staff that’s always in the team’s corner.

Cruz shares his teammate’s faith in Santoro and the rest of his staff.

“Our coaches believe in the team as a whole and each individual as a person,” he said. “That drives you, knowing that your coach has your back. Santoro is a two-time national champion. Hearing (him) believe in us is huge.”

Santoro said the team is heading into the EIWA Championships with excitement and energy.

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