There is life after “The Gwiz” for N.C. State’s wrestling program.
Unbeaten in the ACC and ranked in the top 10 in the country is not bad for any year, let alone what coach Pat Popolizio expected to be a rebuilding year.
But that’s where Popolizio finds his Wolfpack team, ranked No. 8 in the country and with a 4-0 conference mark heading into Saturday’s ACC match at No. 5 Virginia Tech (15-1, 4-0 ACC).
The Wolfpack is set to host the ACC championship on March 4 at the newly renovated Reynolds Coliseum and has a chance to host a Big Ten team in the NWCA National Duals on Feb. 17.
The most difficult part of the season is still in front of the Wolfpack but it has been an accomplishment for Popolizio’s fifth team to get this far.
The Wolfpack (12-1) lost three All-Americans from last year’s team, including “The Gwiz,” heavyweight Nick Gwiazdowski, the most accomplished wrestler in school history. Popolizio figured this would be a rebuilding year after finishing the 2016 regular season with 23 wins, ranked No. 2 in the country and the program’s first ACC title since 2007.
“I want to say it was going to be a ‘reloading’ year but we’re just not there as a program,” Popolizio said. “It was more of a rebuilding phase. We’ve got a whole different lineup but the guys’ mentality and attitude has been phenomenal.”
Popolizio knew it would be a challenge to replace the 6-1, 255-pound Gwiazdowski, who won 88 straight matches and two national titles. All-Americans Tommy Gantt, who graduated, and Pete Renda, who is redshirting, also left holes in the 10-man lineup.
But junior Kevin Jack (25-1 at 141 pounds), redshirt senior Sam Speno (20-5 at 149 pounds) and junior Michael Macchiavello (20-4 at 184 pounds) have picked up the slack. Freshmen Thomas Bullard (17-6 at 157 pounds) and Nick Reenan (18-7 at 174 pounds) have been welcomed additions from a highly-touted recruiting class.
A year after sending eight wrestlers to the NCAA championships, Popolizio believes there’s a chance this year’s team could send as many as 10.
“We don’t have the horses we had, with Nick, Tommy and Pete in the lineup, but I feel like these guys want to prove themselves,” Popolizio said.
Jack, who won an ACC title last year, has stepped into Gwiazdowski’s role as the team leader, Popolizio said.
“He’s taken on a leadership role and has been phenomenal with it,” Popolizio said. “I think that’s helped him step up and have individual success.”
For Jack, much of this season has been about making up for the finish to last year. N.C. State went into the NCAA tournament with hopes of a top four finish. Some early-round losses kept the Wolfpack out of the top 10. The No. 11 finish was the best of Popolizio’s tenure, and up from No. 16 the year before, but there was still a sense of disappointment.
Jack, an All-American as a freshman in 2015 as a fifth-place NCAA finisher, had a difficult NCAA experience. He entered the tournament as the No. 3 seed, and with a 23-3 record, but went 3-2 and did not place.
“It’s still in my head and it still fuels me every day,” Jack said. “During the offseason, that really motivated me to improve mentally and physically.”
Popolizio hopes the NCAA finish will motivate more than just Jack.
“The only positive to the finish last year is we left the door wide open for us to accomplish bigger and better things this year,” Popolizio said. “That’s a tall order with this team, but I don’t think it’s untouchable.”
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio