Nick Gwiazdowski won a national title and earned high praise from a college wrestling legend last year at the NCAA championship.
The N.C. State heavyweight is not sure how to top that Thursday in St. Louis at the NCAA championship, but he’s going to try.
One thing he won’t do is talk too much.
“I just want to start the thing,” Gwiazdowski said. “There’s so much talk behind it and prep. It has been a long year. It’s like, ‘Alright, let’s do this.’”
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The waiting is almost over for Gwiazdowski and his four Wolfpack teammates who will wrestle in the three-day national meet, which starts Thursday.
N.C. State finished 19th in the NCAA team standings last year and is hoping for a top-15 finish this time around.
Gwiazdowski, 30-0 on the season, has the chance to become the first N.C. State wrestler to win multiple national titles. He would be only the third ACC wrestler to win consecutive individual NCAA titles and first since North Carolina’s T.J. Jaworsky won his third straight in 1995.
The redshirt-junior from Duanesburg, N.Y., enters this year’s tournament as the favorite. Last year he knocked off two-time heavyweight champion Tony Nelson in the title match.
Nelson, from Minnesota, led 2-0 going into the third period when Gwiazdowski scored four points on two different takedowns for the 4-2 win.
“It was a great match, a great win,” N.C. State coach Pat Popolizio said. “We’re obviously hoping for a repeat.”
The way Gwiazdowski won, with some wrestling smarts and aggressiveness, impressed legendary coach Dan Gable, who led Iowa to 15 national titles. Gable also was a two-time national champion at Iowa State, losing only one match in three years, and a gold medalist at the 1972 Olympics.
Gwiazdowski impressed Gable, who was working on ESPN’s broadcast of the championship, with his sound technique, especially for a wrestler his size (6-0, 250 pounds).
“He can wrestle,” Gable said during the broadcast after Gwiazdowski won the NCAA title. “He can actually maneuver. That guy has some great skills.”
Gwiazdowski, who has a 72-2 record at N.C. State, is strong and wrestles with good technique, Popolizio said, but what sets him apart from the NCAA field is his intelligence.
“He’s very smart,” Popolizio said. “He has just about every physical tool, but he understands aspects of the sport and sees things that most others, even some coaches, don’t.
“He basically has an advantage before the match starts.”
Gwiazdowski, who started wrestling in first grade, said his technique helps and so does his speed. He’s also quite proud of his defense.
He’s not cut from the same mold as traditional heavyweight maulers, who win with sheer size and strength.
“I’m different than that,” Gwiazdowski said. “I’m not trying to turn it into a fist fight. I like to set the tone.”
Gwiazdowski and Popolizio’s ties go back to central New York. They both wrestled in high school for Joe Bena, another coaching legend of amateur wrestling.
Gwiazdowski wrestled for Popolizio at Binghamton University in New York for a season in 2012 before the coach took the N.C. State job.
At Binghamton, Gwiazdowski finished eighth in the NCAAs as a freshman, losing to Nelson and Mike McMullen of Northwestern.
Nelson’s college career is over, but McMullen is the No. 2 seed in the field in St. Louis. It takes five wins to secure the title. Gwiazdowski expects to get everyone’s best shot.
“Last year, I was a little bit of an underdog,” Gwiazdowski said. “This year it will be different.”