One for District 11: Darian Cruz wins NCAA Title, Credits His Roots

ST. LOUIS – It might have been wrestled on college’s wrestling’s biggest stage, in front of nearly 20,000 fans at the Scottrade Center and millions more watching on television, but Darian Cruz’s NCAA championship was all about the Lehigh Valley.

The Bethlehem Catholic grad beat Ethan Lizak, his old elementary school rival from Parkland, 6-3 to give Lehigh its first national champion since 2011.

“I worked my tail off day in, day out, and it feels so good to have it pay off,” Cruz said. “And another thing I’m really happy about is I made the Lehigh community, my parents, my family, my friends, my coaches so proud, and I think that’s the biggest thing to having success, having the drive. All those people are my drive. So thank you.”

Cruz said representing the Lehigh Valley and District 11 was important to him and the his roots helped him develop into a national champion.

“It’s just a family, no matter what,” he said. “You’re competing in high school, but it’s a culture. We stayed friends growing up. And that’s I think why D-11 is so tough and successful, that we push each other and grow as a culture.

“We don’t stay away from each other because we’re competitors,” Cruz said. “We work out – I mean, me and Lizak worked out plenty of times in the Lehigh Wrestling Club, for Coach (Bobby) Weaver and my dad.

“And I remember going to the park and we were real little, and I was wrestling with Lizak, because it’s a culture out there. I love sharing it with some young kids and bringing them to high school matches. And I can’t emphasize enough how the culture of it and the family bond that all of us share when we go out. Like we go on to better and bigger things, it’s just like a family experience.”

Experience, with Lizak specifically, played a key role for Cruz in Saturday night’s victory. Cruz learned his lesson at the Southern Scuffle: Don’t let Lizak on top of you.

The Lehigh junior, who came in as the fourth seed at 125 pounds, had the edge on Lizak, a sophomore, when they were peewee wrestlers in the Lehigh Valley, but Lizak turned the tables when they got to college. Lizak beat Cruz 8-0 at the Southern Scuffle on Jan. 1, thanks to his ability on top, which is arguably the best in the NCAA at 125 pounds.

Cruz made sure that was never a factor on Saturday night. The first step in doing so was to score a takedown in the first period. Cruz took care of that. He wasn’t able to finish a leg attack quickly, but eventually scored on a Merkle with 1:12 left in the first period. Lizak quickly escaped, but the 2-1 lead put Lizak in a position where he almost had to choose bottom in the second after Cruz deferred.

Although Lizak escaped again to tie it at 2, it played into Cruz’s hands. With the score still tied at 2 entering the third, he could choose the neutral position and avoid going under against Lizak.

“You know, we drew up some scenarios, and that was one of them,” Cruz said. “You get choice, and I thought he was going to pick top. And I guarantee in the third period if the score was what it was, then he probably goes top and tries to turn me.”

Lizak had one very good leg attack but came up empty. Instead, it was Cruz coming up with the matching-winning takedown with 32 seconds left in the third.

Lizak escaped with 17 seconds remaining, and Cruz sealed with another late takedown.

Cruz became the 28th NCAA champion in Lehigh’s history and the first since Zach Rey in 2011.

“You never know when you’re going to be on the big stage ever again, you know what I mean?” Cruz said. “Whether it’s health, whether it’s, you know, tough losses, you never know. So honestly, I think that’s what drove me a lot. I wanted to leave my imprint on that university history.”


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