This is the 47th installment of Seven Minutes. It's a series of interviews with college wrestling's top stars. Most of the question-and-answer sessions last roughly seven minutes. Hence the name.
Lehigh national champion Darian Cruz is ranked No. 5 nationally at 125 pounds. The two-time All-American entered this season with a 90-18 career record after winning a national title last season.
If you could take what you know now and have a conversation with yourself at 15, what advice would you give yourself?
Oh man, that’s a good question. That’s something I’ve actually thought about before, and that’s why I try to give back to younger guys so much, like our freshmen. I would tell myself to have more confidence in yourself. I’d tell myself that you have the ability to be the best in the country and the best in the world at what you do and have that level of confidence and not a lot of people are going to be able to hang with that, so open up and have fun with it.
What were your top three schools in recruiting and why did you pick Lehigh?
My top three schools were Lehigh, of course, Oklahoma State and then either Drexel or North Carolina State. I liked those schools. The choices were there and my brother had been at Lehigh the year before I committed. I’m not saying that’s exactly why I went, but it’s a big part. Having my family at this school was pretty important to me. And the coaching dynamic. Taking nothing away from those other coaches — they’re great coaches — but having coach Pat (Santoro) and the type of man he is. He cares about you as more of a man. He’s here to build your character and build you as a man and make you better at wrestling along the way. Having that mentality is one in a million. It’s hard to find people who care about you that much. I just thought some of the big schools you’d just be a number. You’d get hurt or you’re not doing so well in school or you have personal problems and they’d just replace you. I could be totally wrong, but that’s just the feel that I got.
Nothing against those other programs. They’re great programs, but I wanted to stick with coach Pat. He seemed like a really, really good guy, and he has been a great guy.
What’s the most rewarding victory you’ve ever had?
This is a little back story. When I was in middle school, I lost to Zain Retherford in Junior High states and I came back the next year and beat him. Me and Zain wrestled all the time when we were little. But honestly, this (past) season specifically, it was the (Thomas) Gilman match. I wanted to wrestle Gilman in the All-Star Classic in the beginning of the season and he turned it down, whether he did or the coaches did. I wanted to wrestle him at the All-Star Classic and didn’t get to and then I didn’t get to see him all season. Seeing him knock off top guys and being at the top, as soon as the seedings came out, our coaches were kind of upset about it, but we talked about it and honestly, going back to how great of a coach Pat is and coach Brad Dillon and Darrius Little, they all said, ‘You know what? You’re going to have to beat everybody to win it anyway.’ That semifinal match was so rewarding after just a full season of grinding through injuries. I wasn’t healthy the entire year and coming out on top was an awesome feeling.
If you could take something from somebody else’s skill set in college wrestling and add it to your game, what would you pick?
I would either want to have the strength of Zain because Zain is a bull, he’s so strong, or have the pressure of (Jason) Nolf. I got to hang out with those guys over the summer. His pressure is unbelievable. … He always knows where to put his hands and he’s so relaxed. He’s so calm and collected. He makes it look easy.
Let’s say wrestling has one governing body and you’re the president, what would you want to change?
One of the things I’d change is increasing the value of a takedown. It’s really hard to people down in college, believe it or not. I’d maybe make a takedown worth three points, because increasing the value might put more pressure on people to get more takedowns in some of these matches where two good kids are just looking at each other the whole match instead of trying to open up and score points.
Take me through your pre-match preparation: What’s the typical size of a last-minute weight cut for you? What do you put in your body after you step on the scale? What do you have pumping through your headphones during your warm-up?
This is a funny thing on our team. No matter how much I’m over, I check before weigh-ins and I’m always .4 over. Every single time, no matter what. We usually workout two hours before weigh-ins, either at Lehigh or if it’s an away match wherever we’re competing. We’ll get a pre-match, last-minute weight-cut in and no matter how hard I go, if I check my weight after the workout, I’m always .4 over.
It’s so weird. It’s every single time, no matter what. I’ll get off the scale and the coaches will ask me: ‘.4 again?’ I’m like, ‘Yep.’ It’s not like I’m exhausted or sucking a lot of weight. I’m tiny for the weight, I think. My body just stops at .4 over every time, so I’ll get back on the bike or get a little jog in for 20 minutes or so and lose the last .4.
After weigh-ins, we have this drink called Scratch and I love to eat peanut butter and jelly on a bagel. Fig Newtons are also one of my favorite things, and a little bit of Pedialyte to feel good. I can’t really eat too much because I’m usually the first bout up. I keep it simple and keep it light.
I like to listen to music maybe a half hour before competing to get me up a little bit from sitting around and eating food and that post-weigh-in feel. Other than that, I like to listen to what’s going on in the gym and take in the environment I’m going to compete in and then let it rip.
What’s the last thing you tell yourself before you set your foot on the line?
There’s two things I tell myself right before. If I get taken down, who cares? It’s just reassuring that that’s OK. It’s not the end of the world. I’m going to go score some more points, so don’t be afraid to give up some points. And then the second thing is the sun’s going to come up tomorrow. No matter what happens, it’s not that big of a deal. I’m still going to have my family, the people who think I’m the best. It’s no big deal, so just go out and have fun.
What’s one thing your coach yells that you can hear every time?
Whether it’s coach Pat or coach Dillon, they’re always yelling, ‘More of that.’ It’s either ‘More of that’ or ‘Get your feet going and get your hands going.’
If you could go back and re-wrestle any match, which would it be and why?
I’d go back and wrestle Nico Megaludis again. He beat me up, man. He beat the crap out of me and it was no fun. I was a freshman. Even when I came back when I was a sophomore, I was young and I wasn’t confident in myself at all and he beat me up. I’d like to go back now and wrestle Megaludis.
Who’s one guy you’ve wrestled in college that you enjoy scrapping against and why?
I don’t know if I would consider it enjoyable, but I respect him a lot, and that’s Sean Russell. He’s a great opponent. We usually wrestle like three times a year every year and it’s a one-point match every time.
This season I haven’t gotten a chance to wrestle him yet. I was out all week. We had some flu going around and I was pretty sick and I didn’t get the chance to wrestle him. I talked to him afterward and I apologized. Everyone wants the opportunity to compete against a good opponent. I apologized to him after the match. I talked to him and he said, ‘It’s all good. I’ll see you in the finals of some tournament sooner or later.’ He’s a great guy and he has kids he went to school with back in Georgia that play football here at Lehigh, so we kind of have some mutual friends. Every match with him is a dog fight. It’s an intense match. It’s not just a boring 2-1 or 3-1 match. There’s shots being fired and he’s a slick kid and a grinder. That’s one kid I have a lot of respect for — Sean Russell.”
If you could go back and wrestle anybody from any era, who would you want to compete against?
I would really like to compete against either coach Pat or John Smith. I’ve heard coach Pat’s intensity was through the roof. I heard he was a non-stop buzzsaw. He wasn’t maybe the greatest technically, but he could go forever. I remember hearing stories of him saying, ‘When I was on the mat, all I saw was red and I wanted to bury the guy,’ which is funny because he’s kind of quiet and mello. He tells me stories where he’d go in a three-man group and try to break both guys every time. He said he’d get a fresh partner and try to break him. That doesn’t surprise me because seeing coach Pat now, obviously he’s older … he’s not the fastest guy, but his timing is really good. He’s snapping and shooting and it’s non-stop and it gets you.
And I’d like to compete against John Smith. His style was something that I kind of looked into since I was little and that Oklahoma State style was pretty cool. I’d like wrestle him.