It would probably be more than a little unfair to say that Lehigh wrestling over the past six years had fallen off the national map.
After all, the Mountain Hawks over the past half-decade only continued their long legacy of success in the sport, fielding teams that consistently ranked among the nation’s best. Heading into the 2016-2017 season, the Mountain Hawks since Pat Santoro’s arrival in 2009 had won four league titles, finished as runners-up three times, and saw 18 wrestlers earn All-American honors.
But for a program accustomed to enormous success, there had been of late one area where the Mountain Hawks seemed to be falling short: Since 285-pounder Zach Rey claimed the national title in 2011, no other Mountain Hawk could do the same.
Thanks to Darian Cruz, that’s no longer the case.
In one of the great stories in the entire sport this year, Cruz, a junior 125-pound dynamo from nearby Allentown, stunned the wrestling world by upsetting top-seeded Thomas Gilman of Iowa in the national semifinals in St. Louis this March. Then, just a day later, he capped his remarkable season by beating longtime rival Ethan Lizak of Minnesota, 6-3, in the final. The victory added Cruz’s name to Lehigh’s impressive list of 28 total national champions and served notice to the wrestling world that Mountain Hawk wrestling is very much alive and well.
“It’s a big deal,” Santoro says of Cruz’s achievement. “He accomplished something that is really hard to do, which is great. It can change your life forever, not just in wrestling but what you do [outside the sport]. ... He has just done everything right. He’s done all the little things, and when you do the little things right, big things happen.”
Big things, indeed.
Along with his national title, Cruz was honored this spring as EIWA Wrestler of the Year—making him just the fourth Lehigh wrestler to win that award—while the City of Bethlehem officially declared April 4, 2017, as “Darian Cruz Day.” It’s heady stuff, but Cruz seemed to be taking it in stride.
“I’m happy and so blessed to be here,” Cruz says. “I’ve worked my tail off, day in and day out, and it feels so good to have it pay off.”