First Lessons to the Top of the Class: The Story of Whitehall's Paul and Zach Diekel

Zach Diekel After Winning the State Title

In honor of Father’s Day, the following is the story of a successful New York father-son combination, Paul and Zach Diekel.

2012 New York State champion Zach Diekel remembers his first wrestling workouts from when he was three or four years old, practicing with his sister in the living room.

Soon afterward, it wasn’t his sister but another member of his family, his father Paul, a former Junior World Freestyle Silver Medalist, spending a considerable amount of time on the mat with him.

Zach, now a senior about to graduate from Whitehall High, calls the sessions with his father friendly but competitive.

“If I do something he wasn’t expecting or I catch him with a headlock, we’ll crack a smile at each other,” he said. “But we definitely go hard. I think he’s a lot stronger than I am, but I’d say I’m quicker at times.  When we go live, I don’t know if I ever truly score on him, or if he just lets me.”

According to Paul Diekel, his son underestimates himself.

“He pushes me a lot harder than I want to work.  I really have to exert myself to stay with him,” Paul said.  “I probably have 25 pounds on him, but I don’t know if I really have a strength advantage anymore.  He’s a lot better than I was at that age.”

That’s saying quite a bit.

After winning a state title as a senior at Whitehall, Paul moved on to the University of Oklahoma where he was excited about the plethora of high quality workout partners such as Mark Schultz, Dave Schultz, Melvin Douglas and Andre Metzger.

But he realized early on that he wasn’t entirely pleased as a Sooner and transferred to Lehigh, a school he had considered during the recruiting process.

“I was a little nervous about the academics at Lehigh,” he said. “I didn’t know if I would be able to handle the workload.”

He did, majoring in psychology with a minor in biology and continuing on to chiropractic school following graduation.

On the mat, Paul Diekel had a distinguished career wearing the Brown and White, with a 77-9 record including three All-American finishes (sixth, third and fifth) and a trio of EIWA crowns at 190 pounds.

When asked about his fondest memories in the sport, he recalls some of those achievements but said Zach’s accomplishments, especially his performances this February at the New York State tournament, were equally significant.

Zach Diekel came into the semifinals match at the Times Union Center against an opponent, Phoenix’s Austyn Hayes, who had beaten him by a wide margin earlier in the campaign at the Eastern States Classic. (Hayes also had defeated Diekel at the 2010 state tournament). In a tight bout decided by a late reversal, Diekel came out on top 7-5 to earn his first trip to the Saturday night finals.

The four-time New York placewinner took advantage of the spotlight, putting on a dominant display in his last high school appearance, defeating Avon’s Bryce Mazurowski 9-3 at 195 pounds. Like his father, Zach Diekel went from a bronze finish in the Empire State as a junior to a champion as a senior.  After the final whistle, he immediately went over and gave a bear hug to his father and to Whitehall’s head coach (and his uncle), Bob Diekel.

“I don’t know how to explain how I felt after I won,” Zach said. “I almost can’t remember it, it was so crazy.  I have a hard time describing it, but it was amazing.”

“After the semis match, I was speechless,” Paul Diekel added. “My legs and knees felt weak – I was just so happy for him to make the finals.  When he won it, it was a big, happy feeling of relief.  It was a special ending to his high school career and I was so proud of him.”

But Paul Diekel stressed that there’s something else about his son that makes him even more proud – the fact that Zach is the top student in Whitehall’s Class of 2012.  As in many schools, the valedictorian makes a speech at graduation, something Zach is preparing to do.

“I’m honored to be asked to speak, but it’s kind of scary for me,” he said. “I’d rather be in my singlet, wrestling in front of any number of people than speaking.  But it’s a different kind of pressure and something I’m getting used to.”

He has dealt with pressure before. As soon as he strapped on his headgear and took the mat for Whitehall, he felt the weight of the expectations.

“I knew I had big shoes to fill and people thought I would do great things because of what my father did,” Zach said. “But I made a big effort to overcome that.  I made the best of it and used it to motivate me.  I tried to conquer the pressure and not let the pressure conquer me.”

He will once again be walking the same path as his father when he begins the next chapter of his career as a 197 pounder in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania this fall.  While Paul Diekel admits that he was excited about the possibility of his son joining the Mountain Hawks, he wanted to be sure it was Zach’s selection.

“When he was being recruited, my wife and I stayed out of the decision,” he said. “We wanted to expose him to different places and we went with him on visits to Princeton, Cornell and Harvard.  We told him he couldn’t go wrong with any of the choices.”

“I was introduced to Lehigh at a young age,” Zach added. “I went to camps there and watched the varsity team wrestle.  When I started looking at colleges, it seemed like a perfect fit for me.  Engineering is their specialty and that’s what I want to do. The campus reminds me of my hometown a little bit.  It just fit for me.”

Diekel will arrive at the EIWA institution as part of a highly-touted recruiting class. When he does take the mat, fans may recognize the familiar wrestling style.

“By all means, I think he wrestles a lot like me. When you practice together every day you develop similar thought processes and techniques,” Paul said. “I’ve always believed it’s important to be able to attack the legs. Some wrestlers like to be defensive and score off mistakes.  We think if you keep offensive pressure up you will eventually wear your opponent down and outscore them by being aggressive.  It’s critical to do that to be successful at the next level.”

“People tell me that we are similar and we definitely both like the neutral position,” Zach added. “But people tell me he was a lot meaner on the mat; a little rougher with his opponents. He’s taught me at least 99% of what I know in wrestling.”

Much of that teaching came from the matside where Zach said he believes his father has been in his corner for all but “maybe three or four” competitions over the years.

While he won’t be as close to the action going forward, Paul made it clear that he will still be there.

“My goal was to stay healthy enough to be able to wrestle with him until he went to college,” Paul said.  “At the next level, Zach’s training partners will be taken care of.  But we’ll still be there for him – my wife and I now plan to follow Zach in his college career.  I think he’ll do very well in wrestling, but regardless of what happens on the mat, he has his priorities straight.  He understands that school comes first and wrestling comes second; a close second.  I’m so proud of him. If he keeps doing the things he’s always done, he will continue to be very successful down the road.”

3 thoughts on “First Lessons to the Top of the Class: The Story of Whitehall's Paul and Zach Diekel

    • As an eye witness in Bethlehem, I can attest that Zach was right about his Dad being mean on the mat, now and then. Always within the rules, of course.

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