N.C. State will be in the role of outsider in the NCAA wrestling championship in New York and that’s just fine with Wolfpack coach Pat Popolizio.
Even after historic road wins over Iowa and Oklahoma State, an NCAA-best 23 wins and an ACC championship, there are still some doubts about N.C. State’s chances in the national meet, which starts Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s not the norm to see N.C. State up there with the traditional national powers, but we have to do our job to prove that we’re that good,” Popolizio said. “We’ve been tested all year but the biggest test is still ahead of us.”
The ACC might be synonymous with success in college basketball but wrestling is a completely different domain. No ACC team has ever finished in the top four at the NCAAs, or as Popolizio likes to say, “brought home a trophy.” North Carolina’s fifth-place finish in 1982 stands as the best mark ever by an ACC team.
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Eight N.C. State wrestlers qualified for the NCAA championships, led by senior Nick Gwiazdowski, a two-time national champion and No. 1 seed in the 285-pound weight class. Gwiazdowski is seeking to become just the second ACC wrestler to win three national titles and only the fourth in NCAA history.
Gwiazdowski, who has won 84 straight matches, is one of four Wolfpack wrestlers to earn top five seeds. The Wolfpack has finished in the top 20 the past two years under Popolizio but is hungry for more.
“We’re ready,” said senior Tommy Gantt, the No. 2 seed at 157 pounds. “We’ve put in a lot of work to get to this point and we’ve had success, but this is what we’ve been building for.”
You don’t become national champ by beating five nobodies. You want to be the best, you got to beat the best.
N.C. State wrestling champ Nick Gwiazdowski
N.C. State went 23-1 during the regular season, the most wins in the NCAA this season and a school-record in dual meets, and beat nine ranked foes in the process. The Wolfpack finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in the country, the highest ranking in school history. No team had ever beaten Iowa and Oklahoma State, who have 57 national titles between them, on the road in the same season before the Wolfpack did this season.
With individual titles from Gwiazdowski, Gantt, Kevin Jack (141 pounds) and Max Rohskopf (165) on March 6 in Charlottesville, Va., N.C. State took him its first ACC championship since 2007.
The NCAA tournament, with 33 wrestlers in each of the 10 weight classes, offers more of a chance to score team points but the competition is also tougher. That goes for both Gwiazdowski and the team.
Gwiazdowski, a fifth-year senior from Delanson, N.Y., goes back to his home state trying extend the nation’s longest winning streak. “The Gwiz” hasn’t lost a match since January 2014, but the heavyweight field will be stacked in the NCAAs.
Last year’s runner-up, Michigan’s Adam Coon, and Virginia Tech’s Ty Walz are on Gwiazdowski’s side of the bracket. A potential matchup with No. 2 seed Kyle Snyder of Ohio State might be the most anticipated match of the weekend.
Snyder became the youngest American wrestler ever to win a world title in September at 213 pounds in the Senior World Championships. He has only wrestled six times for the Buckeyes this season because he was going to redshirt to focus on the Olympics.
Caught in between classes at the college level (197 and 285), Snyder, a sophomore, decided to move up to heavyweight. He won the individual 285-pound title at the Big Ten championship. The Big Ten, with six teams in the top 10, is considered the country’s best conference.
Gwiazdowski understands the challenge Snyder, and the others, represent to his three-peat.
Snyder’s “a smart wrestler and there’s some mutual respect there,” Gwiazdowski said. “But you don’t become national champ by beating five nobodies. You want to be the best, you got to beat the best.”
Penn State, ranked No. 1 in the country, has been the best team recently. The Nittany Lions have nine wrestlers in the field as they pursue their fifth national title in six years.
The Nittany Lions, 16-0 on the season and Big Ten champions, are the favorites to win it all under coach Cael Sanderson, who was a four-time individual national champion at Iowa State. Penn State has earned its spot, Popolizio said, but N.C. State will go to New York with more than just the hopes of the best finish ever by an ACC team.
“On paper, they look like they can’t be beaten,” Popolizio said. “That’s what I like about this sport is you have to go out and still do it. The NCAA tournament is wild. You will see things that you never thought could happen.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio