The Wolfpacker

Nov-Dec 2021

The Wolfpacker: An Independent Magazine Covering NC State Sports

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NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2021 ■ 47 recruiting. When you win matches like that, people want to be a part of it, especially with a team that's never done it before." The Pack signed the nation's No. 1 recruit- ing class that spring and hasn't looked back. 'Something Special' Touted recruits no longer regularly un- derachieve at NC State. The highly ranked classes now lead to historic accomplishments. The Pack has won three straight ACC ti- tles. Starting with that special 2016 dual cam- paign, it has gone 88-9 the last six seasons. Excluding Popolizio's debut, it has an aver- age NCAA finish of 11.3 under the coach. There have been 16 All-America finishes at the eight NCAA Championships under Popo- lizio, including nine at the last three. There were four in the 20 years prior to his hiring, and 27 total since the team's first in 1979. The coach has now mentored four dif- ferent NCAA finalists, who have combined for three national titles. The program, in its entire history, had six different finalists pre-Popolizio. Of course, the top-line accomplishment is still that fourth-place NCAA team trophy from 2018 that is commemorated multiple times throughout Popolizio's office. "That's just the symbol of a lot of work, sweat, tears and sacrifice — not just me, but every coach and athlete," he said. "You don't have a whole lot of things you can look at and say, this is what I do it for, and literally hold it in your hand … but that's one thing you can and say it was worth it." The trophy is one of Popolizio's two proudest accomplishments entering his 10th year in charge. On top of everything else, there were also personal reasons. "That trophy's always going to be some- thing that's unique and special," he noted. "When you're an athlete and you don't ac- complish your goals, you'll always have re- gret. And that trophy has helped heal a lot of the hardship of not winning a national title as an athlete, not even being an All-American." Sport's unexplainable and cruel irony is evidenced by the fact that the man who has mentored so many All-Americans never at- tained the honor as a competitor. Or a team national championship, despite wrestling at one of the sport's true blue-blood programs. The second accomplishment is immor- talized in a zoomed-out photo of a packed Reynolds Coliseum. NC State is hosting North Carolina in a 2020 wrestling dual, but it could be confused for one of the rowdy men's basketball crowds that made the barn famous. And that photo will never do justice to the atmosphere at the match. "When you get 4,500 people to a dual meet, that's really powerful," Popolizio said. "That's a hard thing to do — to get people to buy in. That's not just you and your team, that's the community coming together. You get certain pictures framed, and that's one I had to get framed. It hangs there for a reason." Popolizio still remembers NC State wrestling drawing under 1,000 fans for an opponent ranked fourth nationally, or when there might not have been 100 in the stands during his first year — and all of the hard work that happened between. The coach knows what it's supposed to feel like at the top level of the sport. He wrestled at Oklahoma State, and competed in some of the sport's biggest rivalries and venues. He and another fellow Cowboy alum — who happens to also be an Olympic medalist — would stack that night at Reynolds up against any they had ever experienced on the mat. "Out of all the dual meets I've ever been a part of, it had as good of energy as any," Popolizio said. "I've even talked to Cole- man [Scott, the UNC head coach], and he's like, 'Reynolds was as loud as any arena I've ever been in, including when you go to Iowa and Oklahoma State.' "It's like the arena is built for college wrestling." Popolizio was always confident he would have good teams at NC State. He wasn't sure if the fan base would be there — and what has developed is as reward- ing as any other accomplishment on his impressive résumé. "Every place has diehards, people that love a certain sport, but to get the casual NC State fan to come out and support us, I think that has had a major impact on our success," he explained. "In recruiting, people are like, 'You get this many people to your matches? I want to come to NC State.'" It just represents another change made under Popolizio, which led to another once-unheard-of pipe dream with a check mark next to it. "I don't see how anybody could evaluate him any other way than being absolutely amazing with what he, his staff and his student-athletes have achieved," Yow said. "The hardest part now is moving up from fourth," Jack added. "It's hard to get where we got, but now it's even harder to push forward and get third, get second, get first. "Pat has never really changed his perspec- tive on what he wants, since his first year here through year 10. His goal has been the same. His culture's been the same. His rules have been the same. Everybody has the same goal. Everybody we bring in, we tell them what we're going to do, and they buy into it. "He doesn't beat around the bush at all with that stuff. It might scare a lot of people — his culture, his rules — but the people that are part of it get to be part of some- thing special." ■ One of Popolizio's proudest accomplishments is getting 4,383 fans — a Reynolds Coliseum wrestling record — to show up for the top-10 dual against North Carolina in February 2020. PHOTO COURTESY NC STATE ATHLETICS

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