LAFAYETTE — Going from the ground floor to wrestling for a state championship has been a three-year ride for Rodrigo Diaz.
When the Lafayette High Mighty Lions wrestling team goes to the CenturyLink Center in Bossier City this weekend, Diaz will enter as the top seed in the 220-pound weight class in Division I at the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Wrestling State Tournament. His standing as a freshman was a far cry from that.
“He had no idea what wrestling was as a freshman, but if you are passionate about something, the sky is the limit,” Lafayette coach Brandon Billeaud said.
Billeaud and the Lions are looking for Diaz’s efforts to be part of a team dynamic Friday and Saturday that helps Lafayette reach the Top 10 in state after a 12th place finish a year ago. Individually, Diaz has the goal of maintaining an undefeated record (46-0) and being called a state champion.
“I set that as a goal — to go undefeated and win state,” Diaz said. “It’s definitely more important to win state.”
Before Diaz could look at that goal, he had to absorb defeats as a freshmen and sophomore. It created some hurdles that had to be overcome.
“My biggest thing was not believing in myself,” Diaz said. “I was saying, ‘What if I failed?’ The mentality of (eliminating) that comes with maturity.”
While there have been strides on the mat, one of the things that drew the interest of Missouri coach Brian Smith is the amount that Diaz is still capable of learning about wrestling and applying to college competition.
“Missouri doesn’t recruit in Louisiana because they don’t have to,” Billeaud said. “Coach Smith had come to Teurlings Catholic for a camp.”
When Diaz went through the process of asking Smith and Missouri assistants what he needed to do to improve, they suggested that Diaz come to Missouri for one of their camps. That led to a couple of additional challenges: raising the money to make the trip and making a good impression once Diaz got there.
Diaz received confirmation that the second mission had been accomplished when he received a scholarship offer from Missouri. Diaz was able to talk with local coaches and Lafayette native Daniel Cormier about the details of his opportunities at Missouri.
“I got a really good deal from Missouri,” Diaz said. “My goal was never to get a scholarship. ... I just wanted to get better at wrestling. I didn’t think the odds of getting a scholarship to Missouri were very good. I wanted to be as good as I could and try to win a state title.”
Missouri, ranked No. 5 in the nation, won a second straight Mid-American Conference title by defeating Northern Illinois on Sunday. Diaz said part of Missouri’s appeal is not found in numbers and computer rankings.
“Talking to Coach Smith was like talking to a high school coach because he was very down-to-earth and humble,” Diaz said. “Missouri is known for taking guys that are not ranked and turning them into champions.”
Missouri projects Diaz as a heavyweight who will need to add some pounds to compete in that weight class at the next level. Before any of that comes into play, there are the ins and outs of going for a state championship. Typically, Diaz will be looking for space instead of trying to shorten the distance between himself and a heavyweight foe.
“I don’t really wrestle like a normal heavyweight,” Diaz said. “I’m more athletic and (with space) there is less risk of them getting you in a bad position.”
The aspect of representing Acadiana schools against the likes of Brother Martin or other New Orleans opponents gives Diaz an additional dose of motivation.
“We can be friends off the mat, but when we are on the mat, it’s different,” Diaz said. “But Acadiana and New Orleans is a rivalry no matter what the situation.”