NC State gears up for ACC wrestling championship at Reynolds Coliseum

N.C. State's Kevin Jack, top, wrestles UNC's Joey Ward during N.C. State's 28-8 victory over North Carolina in an ACC dual match at Dorton Arena on Jan. 25, 2016.
N.C. State's Kevin Jack, top, wrestles UNC's Joey Ward during N.C. State's 28-8 victory over North Carolina in an ACC dual match at Dorton Arena on Jan. 25, 2016.

N.C. State was supposed to host the ACC wrestling championship last year.

With the renovation of Reynolds Coliseum, that wasn’t possible so it was put off until this year.

The Wolfpack, ranked No. 8 in the country, hopes to repeat as ACC champions on Saturday at Reynolds Coliseum.

It’s the first time since 2010 N.C. State has hosted the ACC tournament. When the ACC started to pull its championship events out of the state of North Carolina over the controversy surrounding House Bill 2, Wolfpack coach Pat Popolizio was starting to think hosting was not in the cards.

“That was a little bit stressful, when they were making all of those decisions,” Popolizio said. “Luckily it all played out that we are able to do it.”

Following the NCAA’s lead, the ACC decided to move its off-campus championship events, like the football game in Charlotte in December, out of the state but has allowed schools to keep the on-campus events.

The basics for Saturday’s tournament:

The format

Six ACC schools have wrestling programs: Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State, Pittsburgh, Virginia and Virginia Tech. There are 10 weight classes with six wrestlers in each weight class. The top two seeds in each weight class get a bye.

It’s a double-elimination format up until the final round. Individual wrestlers earn points with wins, and can get extra points for technical falls and pins, and are added up for the team total.

The first round starts at 11 a.m. with two mats going simultaneously. The championship round, with just one mat, starts at 7 p.m.

General admission tickets, $7 for adults and $5 for youth, and can be purchased at Reynolds Coliseum.

The favorites

Virginia Tech (18-1) went 5-0 in league play and is ranked No. 4 in the country.

The Hokies have six No. 1 seeds, out of the possible 10 weight classes. They won the ACC title in 2013 and ’14.

The Hokies come to Raleigh without coach Kevin Dresser, who accepted the Iowa State job on Feb. 20. Instead of finishing out the season, Dresser has been replaced by assistant Tony Robie.

No. 8 N.C. State (13-2) and No. 23 Pittsburgh (11-5) are the only other ACC programs ranked in the top 25 of the national coaches’ poll.

The stakes

The individual winners in each weight class get an automatic bid to the NCAA championship in St. Louis, which starts March 16. Thirty-one total automatic bids will be awarded from the ACC championships.

There are also at-large bids, handed out after the conference results, based on the national rankings. But as N.C. State 141-pounder Kevin Jack said: “You don’t want to leave anything to chance.”

N.C. State had four individual ACC champions last year and sent a school-record eight wrestlers to the NCAA championship.

“We have the ability to get all 10 guys through this year,” Popolizio said. “That’s not done that often, so that would be a good accomplishment for the program.”

Triangle wrestlers to watch

N.C. State junior Kevin Jack is the highest nationally-ranked ACC wrestler in any weight class. He is ranked No. 2 in the country, behind Oklahoma State’s Dean Heil, at 141 pounds.

Jack, 27-1 on the season, has won 25 straight matches and won the ACC title last year at 141 pounds.

Jack, from Danbury, Conn., has made the NCAA tournament in each of his first two seasons. He was an All-American in 2015, with a surprise fifth-place finish.

He won the ACC title last year but then had a disappointing NCAA appearance with losses to former teammate Bryce Meredith (Wyoming) and then to North Carolina’s Joey Ward in the consolation bracket.

Jack has used last year’s NCAA disappointment to motivate him this season.

“It has definitely pushed me to not want to have the feeling again,” Jack said.

Jack could get another shot at Ward. The two have met five times in their careers, including a decisive 10-4 win for Jack in Chapel Hill on Jan. 23.

If those two meet up in the championship, it would be worth the price of admission.

“They’re both offense-first guys and put points up, so any time they get together it’s an exciting match,” Popolizio said.

Ward vs. Jack

UNC’s Joey Ward has a simple philosophy: the more the merrier.

“I love competing in front of crowds,” Ward said. “I thrive in those situations.”

Ward hopes Reynolds will be filled on Saturday. The redshirt senior from Cincinnati earned All-American status last season at New York’s Madison Square Garden with a 3-2 win over Jack in what’s known in wrestling parlance as the “blood round.” He also beat Oklahoma State’s Heil, the 2016 national champion, in Stillwater.

Ward leads the Tar Heels with a 23-4 record and has done that against an incredibly difficult schedule. He lost a 3-1 decision to Heil in the Southern Scuffle on Jan. 2 but beat Stanford’s Joey McKenna, ranked No. 2 in the weight class at the time, to get there. He also has an 8-6 win over Meredith, the N.C. State transfer at Wyoming.

But there’s nothing Ward would like more than another shot at Jack. The N.C. State junior holds a 3-2 career advantage over Ward.

“It’s not a hidden secret our schools don’t like each other,” Ward said.

Ward, who grew up an Ohio State fan, said he treats Jack like a true Buckeye would Michigan.

“I don’t even want to say his name,” Ward said.

Virginia’s George DiCamillo has the potential to keep a sixth Jack-Ward matchup on ice until the NCAAs. The No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament, DiCamillo pinned Ward last month. DiCamillo, who lost 10-1 to Jack in January, was a three-time ACC champion at 133 pounds.

Duke heavyweight

Duke heavyweight Jacob Kasper has a clear idea of what he wants to do in the ACC and NCAA championships.

“I want to be remembered,” the redshirt junior from Lexington, Ohio said.

He is well on his way to that goal. Kasper has had a breakout season, with a 26-2 record, after starting his career at 39-28 in his first two seasons at Duke.

Kasper credits his improved health, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a freshman, for the turnaround.

“Knock on wood, this is the first year I’ve been healthy,” Kasper said.

Kasper, who began his career at 184 pounds, is on the light side for a heavyweight at 230 pounds (the limit is 285 pounds) but what he lacks in size he makes up for in skill.

He has defeated three top 10 opponents this season, including Virginia Tech’s Ty Walz, who is the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament.

He beat Oklahoma State’s Austin Schafer and Minnesota’s Michael Kroells on his way to winning the Southern Scuffle in January.

He enters the ACC tournament as the No. 2 seed and ranked No. 5 in the country. As a heavyweight, thought, there is a fairly large obstacle in Kasper’s way at the NCAA meet. Ohio State’s Kyle Snyder won the gold medal at the Olympics this summer and snapped the 88-match winning streak of N.C. State’s Nick Gwiazdowski in last year’s NCAA final.

Kasper is undeterred by the historic challenge.

“The goal is to be best in March,” Kasper said. “Anything less than to be the NCAA champion and you probably shouldn’t be out there.”

Now that would certainly be memorable.

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio