The Wolfpacker

Nov-Dec 2021

The Wolfpacker: An Independent Magazine Covering NC State Sports

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Page 45 of 51

46 ■ THE WOLFPACKER After redshirting in Raleigh, the heavy- weight established himself as one of the sport's best when he upset the defending two- time champion for his first NCAA crown. That pushed NC State to a 19th-place finish. Technically, two years into the coach's tenure, the Wolfpack was back in the top 20. Popolizio's Pack has not finished lower since. "That was huge; that was momentum," he reflected. "When you're building, you need some kind of reassurance that things are right. … It was, 'Wait a second, if he can do it, I can do I it. I'm training right alongside this guy.' "It hadn't been done in a long time. And now all of a sudden, it happens, and then it trickles down to the other guys." Twelve months later, Gwiazdowski not only repeated as the champion, but he was joined on the All-America podium by a teammate. And not just any teammate, a true freshman who was supposed to be redshirting. With three duals to go, Kevin Jack, a lightly recruited 141-pounder out of Danbury, Conn., was pulled out of his redshirt when a teammate got mono. He qualified for NCAAs after finishing fourth in the ACC, then went on to place fifth at nationals, upsetting the No. 4, 5, 11 and 12 seeds in the process. That combined with Gwiazdowski to power the Pack to 16th place. The culture was established, and results were changing — enough to change the perception of NC State nationally. "People took notice and were like, what the heck's going on over there?" Popolizio remembered. "That's what happens when you get a true freshman to All-American who took sixth at the Super 32 [a national high school wrestling tournament] to fifth at the NCAA Tournament in less than 12 months." Making A Statement With Gwiazdowski and Jack returning as All-Americans, and Gantt coming off a mid- career redshirt, expectations were raised for the 2015-16 season. Popolizio noticed some- thing special about his team in the preseason. It was a gritty collection of athletes, working hard and buying in. And believing. But there were still no real expectations from the outside. "It's hard to see that if you haven't come close to it before, but I think the biggest thing was when those guys came to a workout, they weren't training to be 25th in the country," Popolizio said. "The commitment was there. The guys didn't question the training. They went out and earned the right to win." On opening weekend, the Pack beat tra- ditional powerhouse Minnesota in nine of 10 matches. "Minnesota hadn't lost like that in years, and I know they weren't happy about it," Popolizio recalled. "We were definitely under the radar, and they probably weren't ready for us. We had a lot of no-name guys — but not after that weekend. "The momentum started building, little by little. Teams that were beating up on us, we reversed those results — and a lot of them were in the ACC. We went years without being able to beat a lot of these teams, but these guys were sick of losing and pissed off about it." If the Pack didn't have the wrestling world's attention then, they would about a month later, when they won 19-15 at Okla- homa State. Popolizio's alma mater had won 34 NCAA team titles — more than any other school in a single sport — and was still a certified powerhouse. Beating Minnesota was one thing. Going to one of the sport's most historic venues, Gallagher-Iba Arena, and handing Okla- homa State one of its just 42 home losses since 1939 was unimaginable — except for those on the team. "He's basically the same every match — he expects to win," Jack said of Popo- lizio, whose coaching staff he has worked on since graduation. "Whether it sounds crazy or not, he never goes into a match hoping. That pushes us forward, knowing that he has that confidence in each of us." "I guess you would say we kind of shocked those dudes, but we knew what was going to happen," Gantt said. "Pat was on us the whole week. He just gave us that mental push." The Pack stayed undefeated and rolled through several other ranked foes — No. 24 Old Dominion, No. 17 Virginia, No. 14 North Carolina, No. 16 Pitt and No. 11 Nebraska, another notable road win. It all led to an incredible final weekend of the season in Raleigh with No. 8 Vir- ginia Tech Friday night and No. 5 Missouri Sunday. Reynolds Coliseum was being renovated, so a tiny auxiliary building on the state fairgrounds, the Holshouser Build- ing, was transformed into the burgeoning powerhouse's battleground. And the undefeated NC State wres- tling team became a hot ticket. The match against UNC earlier in the year was held at the larger Dorton Arena on the fairgrounds and drew more than 1,000 spectators. With the Hokies, the current ACC king of the mat, coming to town — even at Hols- houser — Popolizio and his team arrived on a team bus to see hundreds of fans, if not more, lined up to get in the building for what wound up being a standing room-only crowd. Unfortunately, the steps don't always go in the positive direction when building. The Wolfpack fell, 19-14. But that was an exception, and the team did not lose again. They beat No. 5 Missouri in front of a packed house two days later. It came down to the final match, and Gwiazdowski quickly clinched it. That earned them the right to wrestle at another of the sport's most hallowed venues, Carver-Hawkeye Arena, home of No. 2 Iowa. And NC State walked away with a 21-17 victory and No. 2 finish in the dual rankings. "That definitely put us on the map as a program," Jack said. "We had a couple All-Americans be- fore, but I think that really showed people, NC State's an actual team now. "It's not easy to go and beat Oklahoma State or Iowa any year. Being able to do that in the same year, I think it really pushed us forward as a program and in Popolizio's first NC State team finished 63rd at the NCAA Championships. Five seasons later, the Wolfpack tied for fourth place (former assistant Donnie Vinson is on the right). PHOTO BY RYAN TICE

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