Helping the Cardinals' Defense Soar to New Heights
Justin Sanchez came to Wesleyan wanting to be a part of something historic. Entering his final game of his career, he is right on track, as the Cardinals captured their first Little Three title since 2013, and are vying for a share of the NESCAC Championship.
Hailing from Chicago, Ill., the defensive back has been a force on the Cardinals' defense since day one. Earning Second Team All-NESCAC in his sophomore year, and first team his junior year, Sanchez proved he had the skills to compete and succeed at the collegiate level. Head Coach Dan DiCenzo said one of the biggest changes Sanchez made was in his size. "When he came to us, he was about 165 pounds and now he is about 195. That's all a credit to him putting in the extra time in the weight room." Sanchez also was fortunate to play next to great players and great leaders in Donnie Cimino '15 and Jake Bussani '14 G '15. "Getting to play with guys like Donnie and Jake helped me learn the game and grow as a player and a person," Sanchez said. DiCenzo notes that Sanchez learned a lot from his time playing with those two players as well. "Justin got to play next to those two, and he had to fit in and do his job and be accountable. Donnie and Justin were very close, and Justin really learned a lot about how to be a defensive leader from playing with them." Sanchez, who has started every game for the Cardinals the past four seasons, has also been the defensive play-caller for three, which DiCenzo notes is not too common. "Justin is now the head coach out there on defense."
Football was not Sanchez's first love, baseball was. "I started playing baseball when I was three," Sanchez said, "but in third grade I saw a flyer for football, and after I finally got to hit someone for the first time, I knew it was what I wanted to do." Sanchez continued, "I miss playing baseball, but I love football and the physicality and comradery that comes with it. There's something about lining up next to a guy who's putting his blood, sweat and tears into the game that makes football great."
Sanchez was always a fan of playing defense. Growing up in Chicago, he always heard about the vaulted 1985 Chicago Bears defense and the saying, 'defense wins championships'. "I played wide receiver for a little while, but it was boring," Sanchez said, "but on defense you're always a part of the action…and you get to hit people." Sanchez watched many of the great defensive backs like the late Sean Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed and Brian Dawkins, and has taken what he watched and used it to become an invaluable part of the Cardinals' defense. "Coming from a school like Mount Carmel with a great football team, he practices with a different intensity," DiCenzo says. "He goes 100% on every play and he loves when it's game time." DiCenzo would add that "he has great instincts and is very physical with a great understanding of what the defense needs to do to succeed."
As a tri-captain on this year's team, Sanchez said, "It means a lot and shows that I have the respect of my teammates and the trust of my coaches." He continued, "It's an honor to be able to come out with Jordan (Stone) and Ben (Kurtz) and represent this team." Sanchez, who says he isn't much of a vocal leader, let's his teammates be themselves, but if something needs to be said, Sanchez said he will stand up and address it. In the end, Sanchez "wants guys to have fun playing football."
His leadership abilities have been apparent since his freshman year, as he is never one to shy away from the big moments. In his first game against Little Three rival Amherst, he had two key interceptions that helped lead the Cardinals to a 20-14 victory on the road. "He plays great in every game," DiCenzo said, "but he seems to play even better in the biggest moments." Sanchez has amassed four interceptions in Little Three games, but one of his biggest plays was breaking up a two-point conversion against Trinity in 2014, which sealed the Cardinals' 20-19 victory. For Sanchez though, his best moment so far came in a recent game against Amherst, which saw Wesleyan shut out its Little Three rival for the first time since 1988. "Shutting out Amherst felt great," Sanchez said, "I felt that game helped us make our mark, especially as a defense."
Sanchez credits a lot of his success to his parents, Sarai and Rafael. "They were young parents, and watching the struggles they had pushed me to be better," Sanchez said. "They never gave up, and everything they did for me has paid off so far." He also gave his head coach credit by saying, "he (DiCenzo) helped me stay focused and stay on-track with my school work. I had some struggles, but he always believed in me and trusted me." Sanchez went onto say that DiCenzo, "helped me grow not just as a football player, but as a person." With a strong support system of family and friends, Sanchez has nothing but thanks to those that have helped him get to where he is today.
Walking onto Andrus Field for the final time with an opportunity to defeat Trinity and claim a NESCAC Championship would "mean everything" to Sanchez, but for him, it's going to be more about leaving a mark on a program that has left a mark on him.
Written by Lauren Dellipoali, Athletic Communication Intern