When wrestler Nick Gwiazdowski was making the difficult decision to transfer from Binghamton University to NC State two years ago – leaving the comfort of his hometown in upstate New York for the foreign lands of the South – his ultimate decision came down to resources.
He figured he would have a better chance to win an NCAA championship in his chosen sport at an Atlantic Coast Conference school that had already produced five national titlists and had the infrastructure and support to produce another.
It didn’t hurt that his former coach at Binghamton, Pat Popolizio, had been hired as the head coach of the Wolfpack in 2012 and that relationship would help smooth the transition. And it certainly didn’t hurt when Wolfpack assistant Frank Beasley told Gwiazdowski that he would have the opportunity to win three national titles if he came to NC State.
Gwiazdowski earned All-America honors as a true freshman at Binghamton in 2012, but had to sit out last season under NCAA transfer rules when he transferred to NC State so he wasn’t sure exactly how well he would perform in his first year with the Wolfpack.
He needn’t have worried. Saturday night, Gwiazdowski capped a record-breaking season when he upset two-time defending national champion Tony Nelson of Minnesota in the title match of the 285-pound division, becoming the sixth NCAA wrestling champion in NC State history.
“Sitting out last year was difficult, but every tournament, every day, I was watching and thinking next year … that’s going to be me,” Gwiazdowski said. “I did a lot of watching. I focused on myself. I knew I could compete with all of the top-tier guys, even though I wasn’t wrestling them last year. That didn’t mean they were better than me. I stayed focused on myself, tried to get better and knew I would have my chance this year.”
Gwiazdowski is the Wolfpack’s first individual national champ in any sport since 2009, when wrestler Darrion Caldwell, platform diver Kristin Davies and golfer Matt Hill all won titles in their respective sports. Gwiazdowski also joined Caldwell as the only ACC wrestlers to win individual national titles since 1995.
“It’s all kind of just settling in,” said the program management major from Delanson, N.Y. “I remember watching the national championships on television as a kid. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to win one myself.
“Once I got to college, I began to realize that could be me one day.”
Watching and Waiting
Sitting out last year was both difficult and beneficial. As he watched his teammates, he visualized how he could do things differently. He improved mentally.
“To become a national champ, you have to do a lot of things other guys aren’t willing to do,” said Popolizio, who is in his second year as the coach of the Pack. “That’s something he did, socially, in his personal life, everything. Time is very limited.
“He got better and he benefitted from his sacrifices.”
Last summer, he participated in the U.S. World Team Trials and finished third in his weight class, one spot short of making the USA World Team. But he beat Nelson twice in one day at the trials (9-0 and 6-4), so even when Nelson took a 1-0 decision over Gwiazdowski at the Southern Scuffle in Greensboro, the Wolfpack sophomore thought he had a good chance.
It was one of the few setbacks of the season for Gwiazdowski, who was a perfect 20-0 in dual matches and won the ACC title with relative ease. Eleven of his final 15 wins were against ranked opponents.
Now, he is setting his sights on becoming a repeat champion, something that NC State has never had in wrestling.
As a team, NC State finished 19th at the NCAAs, its best national finish since 2009.