Some teams win and forget to have fun. That’s not the case for N.C. State’s wrestling team.
Coach Pat Popolizio has made sure the Wolfpack has taken the time to enjoy one of the best seasons in school history, even with the most important matches and tournaments still to come.
“I told these guys you have to enjoy the moment, because you’re not going to get too many opportunities to be in a situation like this,” Popolizio said.
N.C. State (21-0), ranked No. 3 in the latest coaches’ poll, has already set a school record for dual match wins. With six wins over teams in this week’s top 25, the Wolfpack has also reached the highest national ranking in school history.
For some successful teams, the pressure and expectations make the outcome a relief rather than a moment to savor. The Wolfpack has been able to enjoy the ride, in part senior Nick Gwiazdowski said, because of some the teams it has paid back for losses.
“I have had a lot of fun this year avenging wins over teams who have beaten us,” said Gwiazdowski, a two-time national champion who has won 79 straight individual matches.
When you’re winning, everyone wants to follow your lead, so that sets the tone for our whole team.
N.C. State wrestling coach Pat Popolizio
N.C. State went 16-6 overall and 3-2 last season, en route to a 16th-place finish at the NCAA championship.
The Wolfpack has already beaten three of the teams it lost to last year: Oklahoma State (19-15 on Dec. 6), Duke (34-9 on Jan. 6) and Nebraska (19-15 on Feb. 6).
The only other teams N.C. State lost to last year that it wrestles in 2016 are Virginia Tech and Missouri. The Wolfpack gets both teams at home this weekend at the Holshouser Building on the N.C. State Fairgrounds.
N.C. State faces the eighth-ranked Hokies (13-2) at 7 p.m. Friday for a shot at its first unbeaten ACC season since 2000. The Wolfpack closes the regular season at 1 p.m. Sunday against the fifth-ranked Tigers (12-1).
It will be the last chance for Gwiazdowski and senior Tommy Gantt to wrestle at home. The ACC championship on March 6 in Charlottesville, Va., and the NCAA championship on March 17 in New York await both.
And N.C. State has its sights set on the school’s first national title in any sport since 1983 and the ACC’s first national title in wrestling.
Popolizio, who took over in 2013, has pushed the program to aim for the top and has had help from his seniors. Neither Gwiazdowski (24-0) at heavyweight nor Gantt (18-0) at 157 pounds has lost a match this season.
“When you’re winning, everyone wants to follow your lead, so that sets the tone for our whole team,” Popolizio said. “More than anything, I think it’s their confidence. They are two of the most confident guys I’ve seen in the sport of wrestling.”
As much as N.C. State has already accomplished this season, there’s still work to be done. Fans turned out in force for and celebrated a 28-8 win over rival North Carolina on Jan. 25, but Virginia Tech has been the ACC’s best program recently.
The Hokies have three straight top-10 NCAA finishes and won the ACC title in 2013 and 2014. They beat the Wolfpack 29-9 last year in Blacksburg, Va., and have won seven straight in the series.
“They’re the (ACC) champs, and we have to bring the fight to them,” Gantt said. “I feel like we’re ready for them, but we’ll see on Friday night.”
For all of his individual success, Gwiazdowski would like to add a team win over the Hokies to his impressive resume.
“It’s a fact they’ve beaten us and won the conference and placed higher than us in nationals,” Gwiazdowski said. “That’s a thing for the past, but it’s a new year.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio