North Carolina State Head Wrestling Coach Pat Popolizio is entering his fifth season in charge of the Wolfpack. After a record breaking season a year ago, NC State is now faced with a common problem among emerging programs. How do you rebuild, after graduating two of your best wrestlers, without losing the momentum you’ve gained in recent years?
The 2015-16 season was one of the best in NC State wrestling’s history. The Wolfpack went 23-1 in duals, the highest winning percentage the program has ever achieved and the most dual winsthey’ve ever had in a season as well. They won their first ACC title since 2007. They had their best NCAA tournament finish since 1993. Their three All-Americans, Tommy Gantt (157), Pete Renda (184) and Nick Gwiazdowski (285), tied the school record for most in one season.
Still, even with all that success, their performance at NCAAs was a bit disappointing. After being ranked as high as second in the nation, the Wolfpack stumbled to an 11th place finish. Third seeded Kevin Jack (141) and fifth seeded Max Rohskopf (165) were upset in the second-round and missed the podium. Of the eight NC State wrestlers that made it to Madison Square Garden, only Pete Renda finished above his seed. It was a harsh reminder of just how much those three days in March matter and how quickly a great season can become a missed opportunity.
To compound the issue, two of the three All-Americans, two-time national champion and four-time All-American Nick Gwiazdowski plus Tommy Gantt, were seniors so they will have to be replaced in the lineup. The good news for Coach Popolizio and his crew is that their incoming recruiting class was widely regarded as the best in the country. They bring in seven wrestlers who ended their high school careers ranked in the top-20 at their weight with four of those ranked in the top-10. That youth, combined with the talent they already have in Raleigh, suggests the Wolfpack are here to stay, but it also asks difficult questions of the coaching staff for the upcoming season.
Kevin Jack, Max Rohskopf, Pete Renda and Michael Boykin all have redshirt years to burn if they so choose. Obviously, all the incoming freshman do as well. There have long been rumors circulating that NC State could redshirt all or most of their eligible wrestlers to load up for 2017-18. It is certainly an intriguing prospect, given that lineup could then potentially include the four listed above as well as Sean Fausz, the Morris brothers, Nick Reenan, the Bullard twins, Mike Rogers and Hayden Hidlay.
However, we have seen such plans blow up before, most recently when All-Americans Jarrod Patterson, Andrew Howe and Travis Rutt redshirted at Oklahoma in hopes of making a title push, only to see the Sooners finish 10th and 18th the two years after their redshirts. Another consideration is how a down year might effect recruiting. Considering how well the Wolfpack have done on that front recently, it may be better to trot out Jack, Rohskopf and Renda in hopes that more All-American honors keep NC State near the top of the heap in the recruiting wars.
With so much uncertainty surrounding who will redshirt, the lineup for 2016-17 is very much in flux. Adding to that uncertainty are questions as to whether Sean Fausz can make 125 again and whether Michael Boykin may be too big to remain at 197. It is anyone’s guess what the final product will look like by the time March rolls around. We could even see NC State roll the dice early, testing a lineup without their potential redshirts to see how that might look. They don’t have to decide before the season starts and, really, don’t have to make a final decision until sometime around the beginning of 2017. If they redshirt everyone that could, it will be a difficult year. If they trot out their best possible lineup they could contend for another ACC title and have a reasonable chance to crack the top-10 at NCAAs.
The 2016-17 NC State Wolfpack wrestling schedule features duals against Nebraska (Dec 9th), Edinboro (Jan 14th), North Carolina (Jan 23rd), Virginia (Jan 29th), Pitt (Feb 3rd) and Virginia Tech (Feb 11th). They open the season at The Citadel Open (Nov 6th), head to the Journeyman/Asics Collegiate Classic in Troy, NY, a week later and head back to New York for the Journeymen Tussle on December 4th. NC State ends the year at the Midlands (Dec 29th & 30th). The Wolfpack host the ACC Championships on March 4th. The NCAA tournament is in St. Louis March 16th, 17th and 18th.