Eighty-eight down, one to go for N.C. State’s Nick Gwiazdowski.
The last one, Saturday’s matchup with Ohio State’s Kyle Snyder in the NCAA championships in New York, will be the toughest hurdle for the Wolfpack heavyweight.
Gwiazdowski edged Michigan’s Adam Coon in the 285-pound semifinals on Friday night, 3-2, to advance to the championship round for the third straight year. The “Gwiz” has won an NCAA-best 88 straight matches, including the last two national titles in the heavyweight division.
But in his way is Snyder, the youngest American ever to win a world championship. The Ohio State sophomore handled Virginia Tech’s Ty Walz 10-6 in the semis on Friday to set up the most anticipated matchup of the NCAA tournament.
Never miss a local story.
“That’s who I wanted to wrestle,” Snyder said of Gwiazdowski after his win on ESPN. “I’m very excited to compete against him. I think it’s something the fans want to see.”
Gwiazdowski wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I want to wrestle the best guy,” Gwiazdowski said. “If you want to be the NCAA champ you have got to wrestle the best guy, so we are the two best guys at this point.”
The two will square off in the final match of Saturday’s championship round at Madison Square Garden. The first of the 10 championship matches start at 8 p.m. and will be televised by ESPN.
Snyder became the youngest American wrestler, at 19, to win a world title in September at 213 pounds in the Senior World Championships. He was going to redshirt to focus on the Olympics but changed his mind in January.
Caught in between classes at the college level (197 and 285 pounds), Snyder decided to move up to heavyweight rather than cut weight before the Olympic trials, which start April 9.
Snyder won the 285-pound title at the Big Ten championship and then cruised through the first three matches in New York. He was tested by Waltz, who was the No. 2-ranked heavyweight for most of the season and only had losses to Gwiazdowski.
Gwiazdowski’s win over Coon Friday was a rematch of last year’s NCAA final.
Snyder and Gwiazdowski trained together this past summer but have not faced off in a match due to the weight difference. At 255 pounds, Gwiazdowski has about 30 pounds on Snyder and the senior has an edge in NCAA experience. Snyder lost in the 197-pound final last year as a freshman.
When the bracket was announced, Gwiazdowski figured the road to a third straight title, which only three other heavyweights have done before, would go through Snyder.
“It’s a big challenge,” said Frank Popolizio, who was Gwiazdowski’s club coach and the older brother of N.C. State coach Pat Popolizio.
“But if we’ve learned anything about Nick, he has always done his best when the odds are against him.”
Gwiazdowski is the only Wolfpack wrestler in the championship round. Both Tommy Gantt (157 pounds) and Pete Renda (184 pounds) earned All-American status and are still alive in the consolation brackets. But after a 23-1 regular season, this has been a disappointing team showing in New York for the Wolfpack.
N.C. State enters the final day at ninth overall, with 43 points, which would be its highest finish since 1993. The Wolfpack, ranked No. 2 in the country before the tournament, had hoped for more.
Virginia Tech, in fourth place with 69.5 points, has a chance to become the highest ACC finisher ever in the NCAAs. Penn State, with 114 points — 34.5 points more than anyone else — is on track for its fifth team title in six years.
Gwiazdowski is the only ACC wrestler to reach the championship round. He is seeking to become only the second ACC wrestler to win three straight national titles.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio