College wrestling long has resembled a one-sided tug-of-war with varying programs on the fringe attempting to pull the epicenter of the sport away from the Midwest. The lopsidedness of the fight is reflected in the fact that only six national championships have been won by programs outside the nation’s corn belt.
Monday evening’s match between N.C. State and North Carolina perhaps signals the latest attempt by another region of the country to wrestle – pardon the pun – dominance from the Oklahoma States and Iowas of the sport.
The recent emergence of N.C. State and UNC on the national scene represents a groundswell of quality programs in the southeast, primarily in the ACC and in North Carolina.
The match was shifted from the Holshouser Building to Dorton Arena on the N.C. State Fairgrounds to accommodate an anticipated larger crowd for the showdown between the unbeaten (17-0) and nationally third-ranked Wolfpack, and the 14th-ranked Tar Heels (9-2).
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The recent emergence of N.C. State and UNC on the national scene represents a groundswell of quality programs in the southeast, primarily in the ACC and in North Carolina. Five of the ACC’s six participating teams in wrestling are ranked in the most recent USA Today/NWCA Coaches Top 25 poll, as is Appalachian State at No. 25.
“There’s always trends and things always happen in cycles. It’s never been done, which is not to say it can’t be,” says N.C. State coach Pat Popolizio of any possible college wrestling shift in power. “If you look at those states that are doing it, you’ve got little kids where that’s everything in the world to them to one day wrestle for Oklahoma State, one day wrestle for Iowa, one day wrestle for Penn State.
“We have to create that here. As college coaches, we’ve got to create that environment for kids to one day aspire to be in our programs.”
Athletic administrators at N.C. State, UNC and Duke must have recognized in the last four years that for a program to be the best it must emulate the best. All three of those programs head coaches – Popolizio, UNC’s Coleman Scott and Duke’s Glen Lanham – wrestled at Oklahoma State, which has dominated since the sport’s inception with 34 national championships.
“I think it’s pretty crazy that that’s the way it played out,” Popolizio says.
At Duke, where the sport is not fully funded, Lanham has made remarkable strides to respectability in his four seasons. The Blue Devils placed a program-best five wrestlers in the NCAA Championships a season ago and posted its highest national finish at No. 28.
In his first season at age 29, Scott is one of the nation’s youngest head coaches. He took over a UNC program that had become stagnant toward the end of C.D. Mock’s 12 seasons at the helm. Scott already has re-energized the program while somehow essentially working two jobs at once.
Scott won the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics in the 60 kg class, and will attempt to make the United States 2016 club when the Olympic Trials are staged in April. Because he does not want to overlap his training with his coaching, Scott routinely puts in 14-hour work days, arriving at his Chapel Hill office by 6 a.m. and sometimes returning home deep into the night.
Scott has infused a “why not us?” attitude with his team.
“It’s an opportunity for these schools (in the ACC) that they do have a lot to offer, they do have a lot to sell,” Scott says. “They can be good at wrestling. They can be strong at wrestling. They can compete for a trophy at the national tournament. I think we realize that.”
In his fourth season, Popolizio already has positioned the N.C. State program to attain national prominence. N.C. State placed in the top 20 nationally each of the past two seasons and received a rare first-place vote in the recent USA Today poll. The Wolfpack announced its arrival on the national scene in December with a 19-15 victory at then fourth-ranked Oklahoma State.
When Popolizio came to N.C. State from Binghamton (N.Y.), he brought along heavyweight Nick Gwiazdowski, who is on the cusp of becoming the greatest wrestler in N.C. State and ACC history. With a 75-match win streak and No. 1 national ranking at 285 pounds, Gwiazdowski is attempting to become the first ACC wrestler to win three consecutive national titles since UNC’s T.J. Jaworsky did it in 1993, 1994 and 1995.
Gwiazdowski hails from New York. He is not unlike most of the wrestlers at N.C. State, UNC and Duke who were not bred on the sport within the North Carolina borders. For those programs to consistently challenge the powers of the Midwest, stronger wrestling programs must be established at the high school level and below within the state.
“For us or any other school around here to win a national title and compete at this level, you’ve got to have the local community behind it and the local talent has to be there,” Popolizio says. “So, as much as the colleges are making strides, so are the high schools, so are the middle schools, so are the pee wee programs. That’s got to evolve with us and we’ve got to evolve with them.”
Until then, matches like those on Monday will perhaps serve as a peek at the future of college wrestling in North Carolina and in the southeast.