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By Mike Finn
Weight management has always been a very important variable in college wrestling, including during the holidays when food becomes much of the talk for this nation.
But that rarely worries Lehigh coach Pat Santoro.
“I think of the holidays of being a time when you spend time with family and friends,” said Santoro. “It’s not about how much food you can eat. Our wrestlers are eating healthy meals and working out twice a day.
“Everyone talks about the sacrifice our wrestlers make (this time of year). I look at it as investing in your future. If you want to be a national champion, you realize it’s not even thinking about making a sacrifice. You learn who you are.”
Unfortunately, those lessons can be tough and lastingly painful for a few wrestlers, including at Lehigh, who realize there are limits to those sacrifices.
One Mountain Hawk who experienced the negative side of weight management last year was Jordan Kutler, who appeared on paper to be enjoying a banner redshirt freshman year for this legendary wrestling program located in Bethlehem, Pa.
Two years removed from earning two National Prep championships for Blair Academy, and coming off a knee injury that sideline Kutler during 2015-16, the native of Sparta, N.J., ended a 2016-17 regular season with a 13-1 record, a Southern Scuffle championship and No. 1 seed at 157 pounds at the EIWA Championships.
Unfortunately, there would be no postseason for Kutler last March.
He failed to make weight.
“Jordan was a big kid for 157 and people don’t realize that he suffered a concussion at the end of the year and was out for 10 days before the EIWAs,” said Santoro. “During those 10 days off, he tried to do everything he could, but he blew up. He was two pounds away the night before the weigh-ins but could not sweat the final pounds.
“We monitor guys’ weights, but can’t tell if a guy is dehydrated. We aren’t checking someone’s urine everyday. (Jordan) was keeping his weight down but he was dehydrating himself more than he thought.
“He really took it hard. He took it personal for a month or two. He felt that he let everyone down.”
Kutler told Santoro he would still show up in the Lehigh wrestling room to help others train for the NCAAs. But he also told his coach he needed time away from the sport.
“It took me a while to get out of that hole,” Kutler said. “I can’t lie. It still bugs me today, but what happened, happened. I decided there is nothing I can do about the past. I had to keep focusing on the future and better myself every day. I can’t continue to harp on the past. I can only do great things from here on out.”
And now competing at 174 pounds, that is exactly what is happening for this Mountain Hawk, who learned last summer that he could indeed compete at this heavier weight when he won University Nationals at 176 pounds.
And following Lehigh’s dominating 27-8 dual-meet victory over Michigan and Kutler’s 5-3 victory over Wolverine All-American Myles Amine on Nov. 19, Kutler welcomed Thanksgiving with a 6-0 record and a renewed love for the sport.
“When I think back to all the years that I’ve been wrestling, the reason I’ve stayed with it is because I believe wrestling is so much fun,” said Kutler. “I love to compete. I love to push myself. I love to work hard. I believe those are my special values that I had to the sport.
“I would say I’m out there letting it fly and ultimately having fun. I definitely lost sight of it my freshman year and last year when I was not having fun with the sport. I feel so much better. I feel like I have all my strength. I don’t really get tired anymore. I feel like I have the motor to go with anyone. I feel confident out there. Last year, I didn’t feel confident until I got a takedown.”
This was actually the second time where weight cutting slowed down his career. After competing at Blair as an undersized 106-pound freshman, he developed mononucleosis while tying to cut weight as a sophomore. Kutler successfully made weight at 132 as a junior, but decided to end his prep career competing at 152 pounds; three pounds less than his normal body weight.
“That was my best year,” recalled Kutler. “(Before that), I was just looking forward to making weight and for the season to be over because I wanted to eat. I was losing focus to why I want to be part of this sport.”
“(The topic) was kind of the elephant in the room during the preseason,” recalled Kutler. “People kept asking me if I was moving up and I was avoiding it. It was really bugging me. I felt I could wrestle better at 174 but didn’t want to push Ryan to where he didn’t want to be. Ultimately, it came down to having a conversation with Ryan and then we both went in and talked to Coach Pat and he supported our decision.”
“I’ve learned that whenever you sit down and plan something out, you better do it with a pencil and an eraser because sometimes you are going to be changing those plans,” said Santoro, the two-time NCAA champion from Pittsburgh, and former Lehigh assistant who returned to his native Bethlehem in 2009 after heading up the program at Maryland.
Once upon a time, Lehigh was the dominant program in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association and has claimed more EIWA team titles (34) and individual conference championships (209) than any other team, but had not won a team championship since 2006.
Santoro believes the Mountain Hawks — whose only senior is returning national champ Darian Cruz at 125 pounds — may indeed be back in the East and again be a national power for a long time moving forward. (WIN ranked Lehigh sixth in its Nov. 20 NCAA Tournament Power Index with seven ranked wrestlers, including three rated in the Top 8 of their weight class.
One reason Santoro feels so optimistic about the direction his program is going is because he believes his team has created “an eclectic style” of wrestling.
“You don’t scout Lehigh as a team,” Santoro said. “Darian Cruz wrestles much different than (133-pound) Scotty Parker, who wrestles different than Jordan Kutler, who wrestles different that Ryan Preisch.
“As a coach, it’s not about just throwing technique out there, but finding the right way to coach your athletes, who are all motivated differently. We have to study each of their styles and make sure they are going to the next level.”
Santoro also believes he has recruited good “character” wrestlers, who understand there is more to life than wrestling.
“We have three simple goals at Lehigh,” said Santoro. “One, when you graduate, you will be a better person; two, you are going to be a better wrestler; and number three, you are going to be better prepared for life.”
And that includes Kutler, who offers the following words of wisdom to younger wrestlers who follow him with these do’s and don’ts.
“Do what’s best for you and make decisions that will affect you in a positive way,” he said. “Don’t lose sight on why you started wrestling. Don’t lose sight (of the fact) that you love to compete. As long as you believe in yourself and train hard, you will be successful.”
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