The Lehigh wrestling team heads into the NCAA Championships from March 15-17 in Cleveland, Ohio, with five individual EIWA champions for the first time in 15 years and wrestlers from each of the 10 weight classes for the first time in the current qualification system.
The Mountain Hawks took home a first-place finish for the first time since 2006 and the 35th time in Lehigh history with 164.5 points at the EIWA Championships March 3-4 in Hempstead, New York.
Lehigh wrestling coach Pat Santoro – who was awarded EIWA Coach of the Year for the fourth time – said, however, the team is looking for more than just a conference championship title.
“The EIWAs are just another step, they are just practice for the NCAA Tournament,” Santoro said. “If the guys learn that when they wrestle with intensity and wrestle free, that is when they wrestle their best and that puts them in positions they like to be in.”
Many of the wrestlers hold positions of advantage heading into the upcoming national championships.
Senior Darian Cruz won the 125-weight class for the third time in his Lehigh career and became the first Mountain Hawk in seven years to earn the No. 1 seed going into the NCAA Championships. He took home the Fletcher Trophy for most career team points scored at the EIWA Championships.
Senior Scott Parker finished first at 133 for the second time in his undergraduate career and heads into the upcoming championships seeded sixth.
“I got it done for the second year in a row, and this helped me know that I was back on track heading into the NCAAs,” Parker said. “Crazy things happen at nationals, so you can’t really plan ahead. You have to take it one match at a time. I am just focusing on what I can do best, which is getting enough rest and staying healthy.”
Parker said his goal is to win an individual title and a team trophy at the NCAAs.
Junior Jordan Kutler heads into nationals with a similar goal but is fueled by a different kind of energy.
Kutler won the 174-weight class for his first individual title at the EIWAs, a redemption title. Last year, Kutler got a concussion a few weeks before the conference championships started. He was then unable to cut his weight to qualify to compete in the tournament.
“I have had the EIWAs circled on my calendar all year,” Kutler said. “I was really looking forward to competing last weekend and then punching my ticket to Cleveland. I wanted not only to win as a individual, but also to win as a team.”
Kutler said he has worked hard all year long and it’s time for him to show everyone how hard he and his teammates have been training.
“If we keep wrestling the way we have been doing and everyone keeps going out and giving it their all and having fun with it,” Kutler said, “I think that we can make this happen.”
Senior Ryan Preisch at 184 and sophomore Jordan Wood at 285 put up first-place finishes as well and – with the addition of Kutler and sophomore Luke Karam who placed third at 141 – will also enter the NCAA Championships with top-16 seeds.
Preisch won the Sheridan Trophy for most falls in the championship bracket and the Coaches’ Trophy for outstanding wrestler.
Both Kutler and Parker agreed that one of the biggest moments of the EIWAs was Preisch’s win.
“The highlight of the whole tournament was when Preisch got a pin in the final against his Cornell kid,” Kutler said. “I think that sealed the deal for the whole tournament, and we were all pretty hyped about that.”
Santoro said each of his wrestlers had their own special moment to create a successful tournament for the team.
“We are just really trying to nail down their fundamentals and focus on what they do really well,” Santoro said. “The guys need to know that they need to be comfortable in those uncomfortable moments because that’s how you win those tough matches.”
Senior Cortlandt Schuyler got fourth in the EIWA Championships at 149, senior Gordon Wolf finished fifth at 165 and sophomore Chris Weiler placed sixth at 197. All three wrestlers and senior Ian Brown at 157 – who was awarded an at-large berth – are unseeded heading into the NCAA Championships.
Building on their momentum from the EIWAs, Kutler said the Mountain Hawks have a few goals in mind for the NCAAs.
“We basically had three goals coming into the season this year: winning an EIWA title, being a top-4 team at nationals and bringing home a big trophy,” Kutler said. “I think we are going to surprise a lot of people.”