In 2009, the excitement in Lehigh winter sports was the Lehigh women's basketball team's Patriot League championship, and trip to nearby Piscataway, New Jersey to compete in the NCAA Tournament against Auburn.
In 2010, the excitement was shared with both the women's and men's basketball championships. Both teams were rewarded with NCAA Tournament games against Big XII teams: Iowa State for the women, Kansas for the men.
In 2011, it's all about wrestling.
Battling history and the wrestler that delivered his only loss of the year, heavyweight Zach Rey did what hadn't been done with the Lehigh wrestling program since 2004 - deliver a national title at the Comcast Center in nearby Philadelphia, PA. (more)
The Morning Call's Gary Blockus described the action perfectly of the finals match against Ryan Flores, the only wrestler who beat Rey this year:
Leading 1-0 in the third after a second-period escape, Rey gave Flores a rough ride in the third. He earned enough for riding time and nearly got reversed but scrambled on the mat to get out of it before calling injury time for his left shoulder with 17 seconds left.
"He's a funky guy," Rey said, "rolls around the mat. We got into a funky position where I was on my back for a little bit, but I knew just to hold onto that leg and roll through and try to get to my stomach. What it turned out to be, he was just giving me a lot of riding time and killing a lot of clock in the third period."
Lehigh's official recap gives more information:
After a scoreless first period in the title bout at heavyweight, Rey opened the scoring with an escape with a shoulder roll into a stand-up ten seconds into the second period. With no further scoring Rey took a 1-0 lead into the third period. Flores chose down, but Rey rode well from the top position, using a series of lifts and trips to maintain control. Rey built a riding time advantage of 1:33 to essentially give himself a 2-0 but narrowly escaped a reversal attempt by Flores in a wild scramble with 17 seconds remaining.
Rey released Flores with 16 seconds left and kept his defensive positioning to win 2-1 with the riding time point being the difference.
“Rey wrestled a great match,” said Lehigh head coach Pat Santoro. “Ryan Flores is a really good wrestler. It’s a tactical match. The scramble at the end was a little nerve racking but Zach held on.”
Rey did not allow a takedown all season and finishes his junior year with a 34-1 record. Saturday night’s finals match was the fourth of the year between Rey and Flores with Rey winning three of the four bouts. Rey becomes the 21st individual to win a national championship and the first since Troy Letters won at 165 in 2004.
Blockus noted as well that Lehigh hadn't had a champion at heavyweight since 1936 - "since Howell Scobey won in a bracket of three wrestlers," he added. In contrast, Rey had to advance through a bracket of 33 wrestlers, including Rutgers' David Marone, Penn State's Cameron Wade, and Missouri's Dom Bradley.
The Broewn & White also added more to Rey's historic victory:
"I knew I was going to have to wrestle smarter, and harder to beat someone like Flores," he said. "Staying in good position throughout the match was key."
"Getting my hand raised as champion in front of all my family and friends who came out to watch was something that I will have with me for my entire life," Rey said. Rey credited the coaching staff for putting him and his fellow teammates in a position to be successful. "The coaches really put together a tough schedule for us this season to get us ready for the competition they knew we would face in Philadelphia," he said.
Lehigh qualified three wrestlers as all-Americans this year: Rey, of course, but also Brandon Hatchett at 165 lbs and Robert Hamlin at 184 lbs.
After losing in the Round of 16 to Wisconsin's Andrew Howe, Hatchett ran through consolations to finish in seventh place by defeating Hofstra's Paul Gillespie 3-0 to nab the prestigious honor.
Hamlin had a monster run through the tournament as well, only falling in the finals to the eventual champion at 184, Quentin Wright.
In the second period Hamlin deferred his choice to Wright, who chose down and escaped to take a 1-0 lead. Twenty seconds later Wright hit a double leg shot for a takedown to extend his lead to 3-0. Hamlin escaped to get on the board, and then got in on a single but Wright was successfully able to counter and stave off the shot attempt. With less than ten seconds remaining in the second period, Wright converted another double leg takedown to take a 5-1 lead into the third.
Hamlin escaped to open the third but could not get any offense going against Wright, who prevailed 5-2 to win the only individual title for the team champions. Hamlin’s sophomore season comes to an end at 32-3.
“You can’t stand around against Wright,” Santoro explained. “He’s very dangerous. We have to keep the action going and Robert couldn’t do that like he wanted to in the first period and that set the tempo for the match. He’ll learn from that and he had an outstanding season.”
"After not winning a match in the tournament last year, the coaches have prepared my teammates and I well by constantly putting ourselves in real-match situations during practice," Hamlin told the Brown & White. "That way when it comes to the tournament we know exactly what to expect. Wrestling in the national finals was an awesome experience; it's something that I have always dreamed of. Even though I did not take first, I can use this as motivation for next year."
"It was amazing," he old Gary Blockus. "I have the big goals, stepping stones: All-American, to be a finalist and then win a national titles. I got two of them this year. It's nice, but … It's kind of hard to swallow. I mean, if you told me at the beginning of the year that I'd be second at nationals, I'd be, like, wow, great."