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December 10, 2010

Late bloomer - Hardly recruited out of high school, Chris Diaz has turned into one of the nation's elite wrestlers

By: Matt Kovatch

"I was always telling Coach Dresser since I first got here that I was going to be his first All-American and his first national champion ... It made me happy that I was able to fulfill one of my goals and actually be the first All-American [under Dresser] ... I want to keep working hard this year to try to finish out my other goal. I have a few months to give it all I’ve got, so that’s what I’m going to do." - Chris Diaz

When the announcement of Chris Diaz’s commitment to Virginia Tech was posted on on April 20, 2007, the headline read “Hokies sign blue chipper.” While the term “blue chipper” has turned out to be accurate – last March, Diaz became Tech’s first All-American wrestler since 2006 – a more proper headline might have been “Hokies sign late bloomer.”

Now a senior who was ranked sixth in the nation in the 141-pound weight class at press time, Diaz is recognized as one of Virginia Tech’s best grapplers ever. But at the time of his signing with Tech, the Camden, Del., native was very lightly recruited.

Though Diaz began wrestling at the early age of 6 and actually placed second in the first tournament he ever competed in, he dabbled in countless other sports while growing up and didn’t narrow his focus to wrestling until he reached the ninth grade at Caesar Rodney High School in Camden, Del. Even then, he found himself stuck on the junior varsity team. It wasn’t a situation that most supposed blue chippers have to deal with.

“I wasn’t very enthused about it,” Diaz said of his time on the JV squad. “I was ready to quit. But one of my good friends and his dad convinced me to keep doing it.”

Begrudgingly, Diaz continued on as a sophomore. His natural talent began to shine through, and he eventually wound up placing second in the state tournament. That’s when the light came on for him.

“It took me a while to get pretty serious about wrestling,” Diaz said. “Trying to compete on a higher scale with national level guys … it took a while to adjust. But I was progressively getting better throughout high school. Once I placed second in states my sophomore year, I started to compete in a lot more tournaments. I was even wrestling in the summertime. I wanted to try to become nationally ranked so I could go to college.”

The taste of success whetted Diaz’s appetite for more, and strangely enough, his home state’s size – Delaware is the second-smallest state in the nation – actually fueled his hunger.

“It [Caesar Rodney] is actually a pretty big wrestling school for Delaware, considering how small it is,” Diaz explained of The First State, which, coincidentally, also produced Tech teammate Jarrod Garnett. “There are only a handful of high schools that take wrestling really seriously, and that’s probably what actually gave me a little bit of an edge in pursuing wrestling and trying to get better.

“At the time, my team had won states multiple times in a row, and they were starting to get ranked nationally. Everybody else around me was doing it, so that gave me a little bit of a boost. Having people around me who were successful made me want to be more successful.”

No one expected Chris Diaz to turn the wrestling world upside down when he got to Tech, but he’s transformed himself into one of the nation’s best wrestlers.

And more successful he steadily became. Diaz won the state title in his weight class as a junior, finally drawing the attention of some universities, including Virginia Tech and head coach Kevin Dresser.

“There weren’t a ton of people recruiting Chris at that time,” Dresser remembered. “But I knew enough about him because I had a good relationship with some Delaware people.”

When student-athletes start getting recruited obviously varies from case to case, but for the cream of the crop – which Diaz turned out to be – senior year is a bit late in the game.

“The first time was in the beginning of my senior year,” Diaz confirmed. “I wasn’t very highly recruited because I wasn’t one of the best in my weight class nationally. Coach Dresser showed a little bit of interest at first, but I wouldn’t say he was really pursuing me.”

That all changed after Diaz stormed through his senior season and completed his career that April by winning the National High School Coaches Association senior national championship – fittingly, in Virginia, out at Virginia Beach. Shortly thereafter, Dresser and Diaz set up a date for Diaz to visit Blacksburg.

However, the visit almost never happened. According to Diaz, the other school in the running for his talents was Indiana University, and he actually made a trip there before coming to Blacksburg, unbeknownst to Dresser.

“Indiana kind of snuck in there, and at the time, they had a pretty persuasive coach,” Dresser said. “They flew him out there, and we didn’t even know about it. They made him an offer and told him he had 24 hours to take it or leave it. He and his dad thought it was too good to pass up, so he took it.”

Back in those days, coaches were still permitted to send text messages to recruits. Dresser said Diaz is “kind of a quiet kid,” and that he opened up a lot more via text than in person or on a phone call.

“I just told him that I had heard he verballed to Indiana and that I was sorry to hear that,” Dresser said. “I just felt like we deserved a chance.

“The next day, Chris texted me back and said ‘Coach, I think I made a mistake.’ Virginia Tech was something he really wanted to consider. I said ‘Well, you can still come down here for a visit. You don’t have to sign anything.’”

Diaz’s visit to Blacksburg ended fewer than 24 hours before the tragic campus massacre of April 16, but to his credit, he didn’t let that affect his decision to de-commit from Indiana and become a Hokie.

“Chris called us pretty much right afterward and said he wanted to come to Virginia Tech,” Dresser said. “As a staff, we were obviously concerned about what people were going to think [after the shootings], but anybody who has ever been here knows that was a pretty bizarre situation in this town.”

“It didn’t scare me away at all,” Diaz confirmed. “Stuff like that just doesn’t happen every day. I knew it was still a good school. Some crazy event wasn’t going to throw me off.”

Several months later, Diaz arrived at Tech for good and, contradictory to his laid-back nature, made some bold statements.

“I was always telling Coach Dresser since I first got here that I was going to be his first All-American and his first national champion,” Diaz said.

Did Dresser think Diaz had it in him?

“I did – I knew he was skilled,” Dresser said. “Our concern with Chris early on was his work ethic. He’s certainly not a guy who misses practice or anything, but getting the very most out of him at every practice was a challenge for us as a staff. I always called him an ‘80 percent guy.’ He’d get to 80 percent of what he needed to accomplish and then he’d kind of shut down and go on cruise control in terms of getting tired. In wrestling, you have to learn how to perform when you get really tired. He would never get really tired in practice, so when he got in competition and became really tired, he would shut down and he would lose matches at the end.”

Slowly but surely, Diaz made it over that hump last year. As Virginia Tech wrestling fans know by now, Diaz went on to place eighth in his weight class at the 2010 NCAA Championships. Much like when he earned that second-place finish at the Delaware state tournament as a high school sophomore, his taste of glory as a junior in college has left him thirsting for more.

“It made me happy that I was able to fulfill one of my goals and actually be the first All-American [under Dresser],” Diaz said. “It’s hard to explain, but once you actually make it onto that medal stand, there’s no feeling like it.

“It really gave me a realistic view of what it takes to take that extra step ahead of everybody else. Being able to stand up there next to all these great wrestlers, with the excitement of looking at the crowd and taking it all in, it really made me want it more and more. I want to keep working hard this year to try to finish out my other goal. I have a few months to give it all I’ve got, so that’s what I’m going to do.”

Everything about Diaz’s wrestling career has proved him to be a late bloomer. In high school, he didn’t make the varsity team right away, he didn’t embrace the sport until the end of his sophomore year and he didn’t get recruited until he was a senior. In college, Virginia Tech was actually his second choice, and it took him a couple of years to maximize his potential. Heck, even in his best performance, the aforementioned All-America run, he dropped his first match and had to fight his way back through the loser’s bracket.

One can only imagine what the end of this season, his final one, will bloom into. If the past is any indication, it’s bound to be impressive.