Inside the NC State wrestling room is a mural honoring the Wolfpack’s storied tradition of NCAA champions. Each of the five celebrated grapplers are pictured on the wall and watch over practice as the current athletes work to reach the top of the podium, just like the legends who look down on their workouts.
The wall will need to be re-worked after redshirt sophomore heavyweight Nick Gwiazdowski shocked the wrestling world by upsetting two-time defending national champion Tony Nelson of Minnesota in the championship bout, 4-2, on March 22.
Gwiazdowski, who marks the Wolfpack’s third NCAA champion heavyweight, finished the year with a 42-2 ledger and was named ACC Wrestler of the Year for his record-setting campaign. The native of Delanson, N.Y., broke the program standard for single-season victories, which was previously held by three-time ACC Wrestler of the Year and fellow NCAA heavyweight champion Sylvester Terkay, who was the first in program history to be inducted into the NCSU Hall of Fame.
“I remember as a young kid watching NCAAs on TV, and I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to wrestle in it,” Gwiazdowski said. “When I got to college, it became real that it could be me someday. Then this year, with the way I was wrestling and the guys that I beat, it was realistic that I could win it.
“It was just a matter of time before I accomplished it.”
While the Pack boasts the second-most national champions of all ACC wrestling programs, the school has never had one who has earned multiple NCAA crowns. Gwiazdowski, who also won his first ACC title this season, has already set his sights on changing that.
“Hopefully, I keep getting better; I don’t plan on taking any steps backwards,” he noted. “I want to keep moving forward and building on what I accomplished this year. Hopefully, I’ll win it two more times.”
When Gwiazdowski was a true freshman heavyweight making his debut at the 2012 NCAA Wrestling Championships for Binghamton University, the rookie made his debut at nationals against Nelson, who entered as the No. 2 seed. Nelson won that match, 8-0, to send Gwiazdowski to the consolation bracket, where if he lost again he would be eliminated from the competition.
The youngster accomplished one of the toughest feats in college wrestling by rebounding from his first-round loss and winning five matches in a row and eventually placing eighth to earn All-America honors with a final mark of 30-9. Meanwhile, Nelson went on to win his first of two straight national championships.
Binghamton head coach Pat Popolizio took the NC State coaching job in April 2012 and convinced Gwiazdowski to follow him to Raleigh. Both are upstate New York natives, and the heavyweight was coached growing up by Popolizio’s brother, Frank. There was a long-standing relationship and trust between the families.
Assistant coach Frank Beasley, who also made the move from Binghamton, even predicted that the move would allow Gwiazdowski to become a three-time national champion. The odds looked long at the time with a defending champion still eligible, but now the redshirt sophomore has proved that it was more than just a recruiting ploy.
“I told him this was a place that had a lot of resources,” Popolizio remembered. “Ultimately, that’s why I came down here myself. I knew we could have success and it wouldn’t take as long as it did at other schools because of the resources that are in place.
“To win at a high level, you have to have everything in place. We still have a lot of work to do to build the whole team aspect of it, but there’s a lot that is offered here where some schools aren’t as fortunate.”
The move that the duo made once Gwiazdowski arrived in Raleigh —redshirting a returning All-American who came out of high school ranked as the top heavyweight in the land — may seem unorthodox, but it allowed him to settle into his new surroundings. He went 20-1 in open tournaments with the lone loss coming to Nelson, while adding muscle to approach his current weight of 250 pounds — heavyweights can weigh up to 285 pounds, and some even cut weight to get under that limit.
If the payoff came this March, when Gwiazdowski earned the No. 2 seed after an outstanding regular season and then beat the top-seeded Nelson.
“Redshirting was worth it for this,” Gwiazdowski said. “This is the pinnacle of the sport. Sitting out last year was difficult, but at every tournament last year, I saw the other guys competing and told myself next year would be my year.
“I just focused a lot on myself. I knew that even though I didn’t wrestle, I could compete with all of the top-tier guys. It wasn’t that they were that much better than me — I just didn’t get the opportunity to wrestle them.”
Gwiazdowski was winless in his three previous college matches against Nelson heading into their finals battle on the big stage, but the tide actually began to turn this past summer. The pair met at the 2013 U.S. World Team Trials in June, where Gwiazdowski beat Nelson twice in the same day to place third and finish one spot shy of making the USA World Team.
That pair of victories obviously lifted his confidence, but the wins came in freestyle wrestling, one of the two styles competed in at the Olympics. College wrestling utilizes folkstyle wrestling, which is quite different in rules and scoring.
When the two met in the finals of the Southern Scuffle this January — their third time wrestling in college — Gwiazdowski came closer than ever against his rival, and his confidence continued to climb despite a 1-0 loss.
“That was a big game-changer over the summer when I beat him twice,” Gwiazdowski explained. “Then when he beat me in January, it wasn’t really a setback. I just needed to make some changes, and I did. I knew if I got to his leg, I needed to be aggressive and score on it, and that’s what I did [at nationals]. Also, him knowing I could beat him made a difference, too.
“We changed the strategy from the match in January a little bit — but I just had to go out there and wrestle to win the match.”
Gwiazdowski did just that, compiling a 20-match winning streak to cap his incredible season with 11 of those victories coming against nationally ranked opponents. He tallied more wins than any other grappler in the land and finished sixth for the NCAA’s Most Dominant Wrestler Award, where results are plugged into a mathematical formula and competitors earn an increasing amount of points for wins by major decision, technical fall or pin, respectively.
His 16 pins on the year are the fifth-highest total in a season for a Pack wrestler and represents an unheard of number for a heavyweight, where the final scores usually reflect that of a soccer match.
Gwiazdowski’s finish powered NCSU to a 19th-place showing, the Pack’s first appearance in the top 25 since 2009, and realized a preseason goal. They were the second-highest finishers in the conference and made the biggest improvement in the country from last year’s national finish, when the team placed 63rd.
The Pack will return four of this year’s five national qualifiers next season, including each wrestler that scored points by winning matches on college wrestling’s biggest stage, and Gwiazdowski is one of six 2014 NCAA champions with eligibility remaining.
“That’s a confidence booster that will help everything,” Popolizio said. “It helps morale, guys buy in more and it helps recruiting; it really helps in every aspect.
“In the end, I think we overachieved if you look at all of the guys who qualified for nationals and especially a guy like Nick, who was the two seed. There was a lot of talk about why he was the two seed, but I think he put all of that to sleep.
“They all won matches and beat guys they weren’t supposed to. That’s what you want to do, and that’s when you know things are going in the right direction.”
Gwiazdowski will continue to train and compete in freestyle competitions during the offseason — but he’s more focused on bringing a second gold medal back to his new home in Raleigh than what his future plans might include, whether that be the Olympics or Mixed Martial Arts, which has become the landing spot for many of college wrestling’s best.
“I think about the Olympics when we’re training freestyle and competing, so it’s in [the back of his mind], but I kind of take things as they come,” he explained. “Right now is about taking this one in and thinking about another national championship.”
“You see it a lot in this sport — that guys are content where they’re at,” Popolizio added. “I don’t think that’s the case with him, but there are a lot of factors next year. There are always new guys, there are always guys that are hungry, and there’s the same thing Nelson went through — there can be a younger guy coming up that’s just as good.
“If he gets content where he’s at — just like anyone else — he could get in trouble, but if he stays the course and keeps doing what he’s doing, he’ll be fine.”
Based on this year, Gwiazdowski will be more than fine; he’ll be golden.— By Ryan Tice