Where N.C. State’s wrestling team is now, it’s easy to forget where it was a year ago at the ACC championships.
The Wolfpack enters the ACC championship on Sunday in Charlottesville, Va., ranked No. 2 in the country with a school-record 23 wins, which is the most for any team in the country this season.
Four N.C. State wrestlers (out of 10 weight classes) enter the conference tournament as the No. 1 seed, two more are the No. 2 seed.
But last March in Pittsburgh, N.C. State finished last, sixth out of six teams, in the ACC championships. Heavyweight Nick Gwiazdowski was the only Wolfpack wrestler to reach the finals (where he won his second straight title).
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N.C. State coach Pat Popolizio called last year’s last-place ACC finish “one of the lowest points” of his coaching career. The fourth-year coach takes the blame for the poor showing.
“We did not do our job as a staff to get the guys ready,” he said.
N.C. State rebounded from the ACC struggle to place 16th in the NCAA championship. This season has been one long, winning tear for the Wolfpack (23-1), save for a lone loss to Virginia Tech on Feb. 12.
Fresh off a pair of wins over top-5 teams, Missouri and Iowa, last year’s conference tournament might seem like a distant memory but that’s not exactly the case.
“Trust me, we know about it,” Popolizio said.
N.C. State is hoping to build off its regular-season success to win its first ACC title since 2007.
Coaches and players in all other sports will say the postseason is different but in wrestling it really is.
“This is where wrestling becomes more of an individual sport,” Popolizio said. “If you have individual success, it will take care of the team.”
Team points are earned in the ACC tournament, and in the NCAAs, by individual wins and advancement in the 10 weight classes.
A individual first-place finish is worth 10 points, plus all the other points that a wrestler accumulates in the bracket. Each win in the championship bracket (there’s a “wrestleback” bracket in the NCAAs) is worth one point. Bonus points are available for certain types of wins (two extra points by fall, 1.5 for technical fall and 1 for major decision).
For example, Gwiazdowski won two matches last year in the ACC championship: one by fall and one by major decision. Altogether, he scored 15 of N.C. State’s 31 points.
Gwiazdowski, Kevin Jack (141 pounds), Tommy Gantt (157 pounds) and Max Rohskopf (165 pounds) enter the ACC tournament as the No. 1 seed in their respective weight classes. The four combined to go 19-0 in five ACC dual meets this season (Rohskopf did not wrestle against Duke).
After a grinding dual-meet schedule, which included wins over seven teams ranked in the top 25, Popolizio thinks his team, and not just Gwiazdowski (who has won 82 straight matches) believes it can succeed in the postseason.
“We have wrestled, by far, the toughest schedule,” Popolizio said. “These guys are confident and it’s all confidence and being relaxed and not feeling any stress or pressure.”
Popolizio compared the regular season to studying for big test and constantly putting in the work, rather than cramming at the last minute.
“Our body of work has been done,” Popolizio said. “Now let’s go out and enjoy it and reward ourselves with success.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio