Iowa’s Thomas Gilman was an “uncrowned NCAA champion” of sorts for many years. As a true freshman, he battled his teammate Cory Clark for the 125-pound starting spot. Despite losing a tight wrestleoff to Clark, Gilman scored a huge victory over two-time NCAA champion Jesse Delgado, as well as taking out top ten opponents like Oklahoma State’s Eddie Klimara, the dangerous Dylan Peters, and fellow true freshman Darian Cruz. Iowa opted to send Clark to the postseason, effectively burning a year of Gilman’s eligibility.
Gilman’s sophomore year was no less productive. With Clark at 133, he had the spot at 125 locked up. Gilman’s bonus point production improved dramatically, and once again he gathered an impressive group of elite wins - including one over that year’s NCAA champion Nathan Tomasello of Ohio State and future NCAA champion Nahshon Garrett. However, at the national tournament, disaster struck in the semifinals. Up against unseeded Zeke Moisey of West Virginia, Gilman was cradled and pinned in the first period. He wrestled back for fourth place, but it was yet another year of unfulfilled potential.
Cranking up his in-season dominance to another level, Gilman laid waste to the field at 125 pounds as a junior, his only loss was to Penn State’s three-time All-American Nico Megaludis, 4-3 in the dual meet. At NCAAs, Gilman scored bonus points in ever bout on the way to the finals. He tech falled the tough Brent Fleetwood, majored the solid Tim Lambert and the dynamic Ronnie Bresser, then pinned returning champion Nathan Tomasello. Unfortunately, in the finals, it appeared the Megaludis had only widened the gap, finally earning an NCAA title with a 6-3 victory.
The 2016-2017 season was Gilman’s last shot for Iowa. He picked up where he left off, torching the weight. Gilman earned bonus points in 21 of 24 in-season victories. His only real scare, aside from an uncomfortably low-volume match vs. Nick Suriano, was his dual meet bout with Minnesota’s Ethan Lizak. Lizak came out on fire, exposing Gilman for multiple sets of near-fall points, racking up a huge lead early. However, once he was free, Gilman put on an incredible pace and broke Lizak, gassing him out before pinning him. This was his year.
At the national championship tournament, Gilman did what he does best. Major, major, and a pin over #8 ranked Nick Piccininni, a current MMA prospect. In the semifinals, he faced Lehigh’s Darian Cruz.
The Other DC
A fantastic high school wrestler, Pennsylvania native Darian Cruz turned heads as a true freshman. After an up and down regular season, Cruz wrestled out of his mind, battling his way through the 125-pound bracket to a 7th place finish. Cruz returned to official competition after a largely successful redshirt season. While his redshirt sophomore season was solid, Cruz was unable to place at the national tournament, falling in the dreaded blood round.
While Cruz was clearly operating at a higher level as a junior, no one had him pegged as a title challenger. He was shut out 7-0 and 8-0 respectively by Nick Suriano and Ethan Lizak.
Even once the post-season was underway, there was no indication of what Cruz was about to pull off. He walked through the EIWA conference championship, winning a tight 5-4 bout against his only ranked opponent, Josh Terao. Cruz certainly caught some attention with his first-period pin of Dylan Peters, but a mere 1-0 victory over unranked Shakur Laney quieted that excitement for many.
Cruz handled the huge and talented Sean Fausz of NC State, earning him a spot in the semifinals.
Gilman started the match in his usual manner, clubbing heavy, looking to wear on Cruz and manipulate his positioning. Cruz disengaged and circled off, forcing Gilman to follow him.
Using his superior agility and speed, Cruz faked low outside attacks off wrist control, Gilman pulled him up into collar ties to slow things down and control his posture.
Both wrestlers are incredibly difficult to score on, the ability to apply a process early on would be key.
Cruz worked hard to neutralize Gilman’s shots off the collar tie by clamping up on the wrists and maintaining inside bicep control on the tie, which prevented Gilman from pulling him into his high crotch shot.
Gilman was able to lower Cruz’s level, but could never truly snap him down underneath him, Cruz kept his head up and their relative positioning stayed the same.
When they did operate from space, Gilman did not bite on the low leg attack feints from Cruz, staying relatively static.
When Gilman attempted to dig underhooks, Cruz used a framing overhook to push back on the armpit of Gilman, while posting on the shoulder with his other hand to prevent Gilman from generating any offense. Gilman was able to use that space against Cruz - he dug his head under Cruz’s to stand him up tall, then threw by the elbow of the posting arm to open a window to shoot a head-inside single across to Cruz’s lead leg.
Keeping his cool, Cruz showed off his defense. To prevent Gilman from getting underneath him and elevating for the finish, Cruz applied a whizzer and angled off while posting with his free hand. When Gilman squared back up, Cruz was ready, he grabbed hold of the foot on his left side and pulled. This stopped Gilman from being able to base up, and the position was eventually blown dead due to a stalemate.
The match took a turn in the second period. Cruz chose bottom, hoping to get a quick escape and a one-point lead. Instead, the heavy Iowa ride by Gilman kept Cruz static on the mat. Gilman kept his weight on Cruz’s left leg and used a variety of ties from top position to stop Cruz from exploding out or building up to his base.
Gilman rode out Cruz for the entire period, effectively giving him a one-point lead with riding time. In the third period, Gilman opted for a neutral start, planning on holding off Cruz to retain his lead.
Everything was going according to plan, Gilman had effectively kept Cruz off his legs for the final period. There were only 15 seconds remaining.
Darian Cruz proceeded to pull off one of the craziest shot finishes in the history of the NCAA championships.
Feinting the drop to a low single, Cruz shot a misdirection swing single leg to his right side, running his feet immediately to chase the go-behind.
There’s no way to know if this was on purpose or not, but as Cruz circled, he fell over his own hip. Posting on his elbow to recover his base, Cruz could only control the leg of Gilman with one hand, it looked like Gilman may soon escape. However, mid-transition, Cruz ducked his head to the other side of the leg, shelving it behind his neck.
If we are to believe Cruz was actively thinking this through - this maneuver served a purpose. Gilman was winning the battle of height, and he was close to putting the attacked knee on the mat and burying Cruz’s head. A finish would not have been impossible from there, it would have taken time for Cruz to continue to regain his base then build up, then try to work a finish. There was no time to waste.
With the leg behind his head, Cruz could focus on keeping a grip on the leg while continuing to get back to his base. He used the elbow post to lift his hips off the mat and swing his right knee back through, which allowed him to straighten out his post and stand.
As Cruz stood up, Gilman was pulled in tight, it was all he could do to keep from falling over. With Gilman directly at his side, Cruz tripped out the base leg and reached to cover up as Gilman dropped, squaring his hips to the mat. It was brief, but Cruz established control of both legs. Two points.
Cruz was too time efficient, he left precious seconds on the clock for Gilman to escape. With the riding time point, it was 2-2. They headed to the first period of overtime - sudden victory.
Both men had already been issued a stalling warning, one more would be a point, and the end of the match. Control of the mat was more important than ever.
After working Gilman toward the edge, Cruz shot desperately, Gilman caught the hands on his entry and countered, attacking the ankle of Cruz. With Gilman on the leg, he was in position to pull Cruz back in and finish for a national title.
Cruz made two important adjustments.
First, he attacked the free arm of Gilman, preventing him from posting to get height. This gave him the initiative to use his own free arm to do the same. Once he had that positional advantage, Cruz turned and kicked out hard, freeing his leg.
The second important adjustment occurred after Gilman reshot to catch the escaping Cruz.
Cruz had spun back in to put Gilman underneath in front headlock, and hopefully hit a match-winning go-behind. After failing the initial reshot, Gilman put his full effort into catching the leg as Cruz passed toward the center of the mat.
Cruz either spends enough time practicing this counter to have it drilled to instinct, or he’s a genius, because he instantly felt Gilman favoring one side and switched his feet back toward the edge, passing along the arms of Gilman, gliding effortlessly to his back.
This match is often seen as “flukey”, there’s a perception that Gilman choked. There may be some truth in the latter, but Darian Cruz hit two clutch takedowns in insanely high pressure situations within one minute of the other. There’s no luck in that.
To add to his legitimacy, Cruz went on to avenge his loss to fellow Pennsylvanian Ethan Lizak in the finals, making him the 2017 NCAA champion at 125 pounds, while Gilman wrestled back for third.
Cruz would not repeat for another title his senior year, and Gilman would go on to win a World silver medal that very summer, but nothing will ever change the fact that Darian Cruz is the reason why Thomas Gilman will “only” go down as one of the best Division 1 wrestlers to never win an NCAA title.