NC State

After big road win, NC State wrestling eyes bigger prize

Head wrestling coach Pat Popolizio demonstrate a maneuver with wrestler Nicky Hall during wrestling practice in the Weisiger-Brown Athletics Facility in Raleigh Thursday, Dec. 9, 2015. The Wolfpack wrestling team is ranked number five in the country.
Head wrestling coach Pat Popolizio demonstrate a maneuver with wrestler Nicky Hall during wrestling practice in the Weisiger-Brown Athletics Facility in Raleigh Thursday, Dec. 9, 2015. The Wolfpack wrestling team is ranked number five in the country. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The skepticism was knocked out of Nick Gwiazdowski long before N.C. State’s improbable wrestling win at Oklahoma State last Sunday.

The Wolfpack’s upset of the powerful Cowboys just reinforced what Gwiazdowski, a three-time All-American, had already learned about his coach, Pat Popolizio.

“If you listen to him and if you’re crazy enough to believe him then what he says will come true,” said Gwiazdowski, a senior.

“Vision” is one of Popolizio’s main tenets of success, along with passion, character and commitment. They’re posted on the wall of his office at the Weisiger-Brown complex on campus, next to last year’s NCAA championship results.

In his fourth season, Popolizio has the Wolfpack (9-0) wrestling program in rarified air for an ACC program. The coach attributes the success to a collection of hardworking individuals who believe they’re better than the sum of their parts.

To Popolizio, it’s simple: Before you can win at Oklahoma State, 34-time national champions and winners of 91.9 percent of their home dual matches, you have to believe you can win at Oklahoma State.

“Vision is a big one,” Popolizio, 38, said. “I don’t know if many people had a vision for us when we started here but it’s our job as coaches to give them a vision.”

N.C. State has a proud history in wrestling and it has been able to produce individual NCAA champions, but the team’s success had faltered before Popolizio was hired in 2012.

It’s safe to say the Wolfpack wrestlers believe in their coach now. N.C. State finished 49th in the NCAA championship the year before Popolizio was hired and 63rd in his first season in 2013. The Wolfpack, behind two individual national titles by Gwiazdowski, jumped up to 19th in 2014 and 16th last year.

If you listen to him and if you’re crazy enough to believe him then what he says will come true.

N.C. State wrestler Nick Gwiazdowski on coach Pat Popolizio

N.C. State climbed to No. 5 in the national rankings this week after its 19-15 upset of Oklahoma State, which was ranked No. 4 before the loss.

“I love him to death,” fifth-year senior Tommy Gantt said of his coach. “He’s always there for us. And all he talks about is winning.”

The Wolfpack trailed 15-10 before it won the last three bouts at Oklahoma State to pick up its second win over a top 20 team (31-3 over No. 16 Minnesota) this season.

Popolizio, who built a winner at Binghamton University in upstate New York before coming to Raleigh, has the Wolfpack thinking big, as in as big as it gets.

“If you focus on the ultimate goal,” Popolizio said of the national title, “everything else falls into place.”

Popolizio hasn’t cut any academic corners to get the Wolfpack into the top 10, either. N.C. State was docked a scholarship in 2011 after a poor four-year Academic Progress Rate score. N.C. State had four academic All-Americans last season, including Gwiazdowski. Redshirt freshman Sean Fausz, who’s in the starting lineup at 125 pounds, is an electrical engineering major with a 3.8 grade point average.

The main reason for N.C. State’s success this season is the talent around Gwiazdowski has caught up to the accomplished heavyweight. Gwiazdowski, who began his college career at Binghamton under Popolizio before transferring to N.C. State in 2013, went 35-0 last season and won his second straight NCAA title. He has won his first 10 matches this season and is on a 65-match winning streak, which is the longest in the NCAA.

But N.C. State is proving to be more than just one great wrestler this season. Six Wolfpack wrestlers are ranked in the top 20 in the country in their respective weight classes and four are in the top 10.

“He’s got a lot more help,” said Gantt, who has a 4-0 record and is ranked No. 5 at 157 pounds this season.

Gantt, sophomore Kevin Jack (141 pounds), junior Max Rohskopf (165 pounds) and junior Pete Renda (184 pounds) have put N.C. State in position for its best season since a seventh-place NCAA finish in 1993.

Team success has been elusive for ACC programs. There are only six teams that still have wrestling teams, including newcomers Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech.

No ACC program has ever won the NCAA title or even finished second. North Carolina finished sixth, as the host school in 1994, and fifth in 1982. Those are the two best finishes by any ACC school.

N.C. State climbed to No. 5 in the national rankings this week after its 19-15 upset of Oklahoma State, which was ranked No. 4 before the loss.

Popolizio, who was an accomplished wrestler at Oklahoma State in the late 1990s and early 2000s, understands the advantage of a wrestling pedigree but he also knows it’s not a necessity.

His last team at Binghamton, which featured Gwiazdowski, finished 14th in the NCAA championship in 2012.

“Why did we finish 14th in the country at a school nobody has ever heard of?” Popolizio said. “Binghamton wasn’t known for wrestling. If you have the right recipe you can get it done anywhere.”

To Popolizio’s point, Edinboro University, in the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania, finished third in the NCAA tournament last year.

So a big finish from N.C. State doesn’t seem so outlandish, but as a school, N.C. State hasn’t won a national title since the men’s basketball team did in 1983. This Wolfpack wrestling team might have the right recipe for a title. It already has the vision and confidence, compliments of a hard-charging coach.

“It would have been crazy to say that four years ago and people will probably still laugh at that,” Gwiazdowski said of the national title talk.

“But four years ago, if you would have said that I would have two individual national championships, I probably would have laughed at that, too. Nothing is impossible.”

Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio

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