Mateo Cruz tried to be a wrestler at the Pond Road Middle School, but was stuck on the sidelines in 8th grade. The following year, he discarded wrestling to focus on football and lacrosse.
It appeared his career on the mat was over.
Which makes Cruz’s story all the more remarkable, considering he wrestled against some of the world’s top Roman Greco competition this past summer in Europe, and then competed in America’s top high school tournament in Fargo, North Dakota.
“Yeah, it’s pretty amazing,” the Robbinsville High senior heavyweight said as he walked off the Ravens practice mat. “From not even wrestling to wrestling in other countries. Pretty cool.”
Ravens coach Sean Flynn couldn’t agree more, saying “It’s a good story.”
The story hoped to have a happy ending as Cruz carried an 18-6 record into the district tournament, which began Feb. 21. In effect, all his accomplishments have basically been crammed into two years, as he spent most of his sophomore season just cutting weight.
It’s best to start at the beginning.
Cruz wrestled for two seasons at Pond Road but, by his 8th-grade year, he was too heavy to wrestle at the middle school level. Flynn still wanted him as a freshman, saying “you’d have an instant heavyweight for four years.”
Cruz, however, had other plans.
“I thought of trying football,” he said. “At the time I was really into lacrosse and I decided to not wrestle and play both of those sports. I realized I didn’t have the love for football that I had for wrestling and lacrosse so I decided to come back the next year.”
By then, Cruz had expanded to 320 pounds so he had work to do.
“It was very hard coming back,” he said. “It was a big change of pace. I was re-learning (wrestling) and losing weight. I cut down and finished around 265 that year; that was tough. It took a long time.”
There was no secret formula. Just hard work.
“I got myself on a really strict diet,” Cruz said. “I started wrestling every day. I ran hard every day and just put the work in. No shortcuts.”
Flynn was impressed with Cruz’s efforts.
“Obviously he was behind the eight ball a little bit,” the coach said. “The focus was on training and wrestling, but he had to get his weight down too. I think maybe there was less focus on wrestling and more about the weight at that point. Which is why some of the results were what they were. He didn’t have a lot of competition at that younger age and not wrestling as a freshman put him behind.
“But then he started to come into his own his sophomore year and got much better his junior year. That really lit a fire under him. He decided to do a lot in the off-season after last year. It’s really paid off this year, and he’s done a great job for us.”
Cruz had a strong finish to his junior year and placed second in districts before dropping his first regional match.
“I learned at regions to kind of take my time with it,” he said. “I was wrestling antsy. I didn’t have any big tournament experience.”
That all changed over the summer. With the help of former Mercer County Tournament Director and Robbinsville Wrestling Association coach Mark Bossie, Cruz was one of two Mercer County wrestlers chosen for The Young Lions USA Greco and Freestyle Club’s touring team. Coached by former U.S. Olympic coach Richard Estrella, the group wrestled Greco Roman competition in Denmark and Germany.
Aside from what he learned on the mat, it was a great culture trip for Cruz.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I’m in these little nooks and crannies of the world and I’m learning this world class wrestling. It was great seeing how that part of the world works. I met a bunch of cool people.”
Asked what jumped out at him, Cruz chuckled.
“You’re gonna laugh, but the food,” he said. “It’s different. It’s not how they make it over here. And probably the people I met. I met some really humble people. It was cool to see how their education system works. They go to school for what they like. They go to their grade school, and in their high school years they find their own path.”
Upon returning home, The Young Lions wrestled in Fargo, which included both Greco and Freestyle. The experience was invaluable.
“Wrestling heavyweight with big guys it’s a whole different ballgame,” Cruz said. “There’s a whole lot of different set-ups. I learned a bunch of tosses, I learned how to position myself better, it taught me a lot of upper body stuff. The lower body stuff wasn’t exactly for me.”
Flynn saw a vastly improved wrestler return to the Ravens room this winter.
“Just to be immersed in wrestling and training for a month long with some great wrestling minds, and even challenging yourself, your body position, training with a different style of wrestling was great for him,” the coach said. “The mindset to go compete in those tournaments is a testament to the person he is. Not a lot of guys would put themselves out there knowing the challenge they’re up against.
“Trying to learn that and then go out and compete against kids who’ve been practicing that style for years was tough and challenging, but it was also a great learning experience for him. It improved his wrestling greatly, improved his mindset about the sport greatly. He was able to bring a lot of that back with him. He’s been a great leader for us.”
Ironically, one of those moves he learned cost Cruz at the Mercer County Tournament, as he had a big lead and then got caught trying a move and was pinned. To his credit, he wrestled back for fifth place.
“I was super upset,” he said. “But ever since a young age I’ve been told to get over the losses. I was told don’t let a win go to your head or a loss to go your heart. I try to stick by that. It was a hard pill to swallow at first but I came back and crushed everybody else that was in my way and took pride (in wrestling back to fifth).”
Cruz will continue his career at Penn College of Technology in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Although it is a trade school, it offers NCAA Division III wrestling, which gives Cruz everything he wants.
“I’ve been working since I could walk,” Cruz said. “My dad dropped out of high school and owns a multi-million dollar company, that motivated me a lot. This is a no-brainer for me. I can wrestle Division III, I know how to use my hands, I know how to use my brain, I know how to correlate them so I thought ‘Let’s try it out.’”
Getting the brain and the hands to work together sounds a lot like wrestling; and Cruz feels the two will cross paths at Penn Tech.
“I’m sure they will,” he said with a grin. “I’m sure I’ll drop a wrench on my hand and it will feel like it’s being bent backwards by my opponent.”
And as usual, he will battle through it.