RALEIGH — The wall outside NC State’s wrestling practice gym is adorned with pictures of the Wolfpack’s past national champions, surrounded by a couple of campus landmarks.
Michael Macchiavello has had his eye on a spot in the upper right quadrant since he arrived on campus five years ago.
There’s an image of the Bell Tower on it now. But that will soon change, thanks to Macchiavello’s performance in the 197-pound division at the NCAA Division I Championships in Cleveland last weekend. The redshirt senior became the Wolfpack’s eighth national champion — and only second ever by a North Carolina native — by scoring a dramatic 3-1 victory against Virginia Tech’s Jared Haught.
His title victory, combined with three other All-American finishes, helped State finish fourth in the team competition for its highest finish ever at the national wrestling meet.
“I’m always joking around, like ‘I’m reserving that spot next to Nick (Gwiazdowski),’” Macchiavello said, referring to the heavyweight wrestler who brought home titles in 2014 and 2015. “I don’t know if that’s where they’re going to put me, but that’s the joke.
“For me to actually put myself in position to become part of this elite group of people, to be up on that wall, I’m still coming to terms with it. I still can’t believe it.”
Not many others would have believed it before this weekend.
Seeded fourth at 197, Macchiavello began his title run on Thursday by beating Thomas Lane of Cal Poly 13-4. He followed that up with a 16-5 win against Jeric Kasunic of American later in the day. He was just as dominant in Friday’s quarterfinal by taking down Penn State’s Shakur Rasheed 5-4 before pinning Kent’s Kyle Conel to earn a spot in Saturday’s championship match.
Although his prospects against third-seeded Haught didn’t seem overly optimistic after having lost to the Hokies star twice already this season, Macchiavello went into the bout confident — if only because he figured the law of averages were in his favor.
“I know he had beaten me the previous two times, and that’s definitely something I thought about,” the graduate of Sun Valley High School in Monroe said. “I lost the first match on my own stall call, which was a mental error on my part, and the second one was a triple overtime match that could have gone either way. So I knew this match was going to be a tough one, but I felt as long as wrestled hard and gave everything I had there was a pretty good chance I would pull it out.”
The score was tied at 1 going into the final period and appeared to be headed to overtime again when Macchiavello eluded Haught’s shot and scored a two-point takedown with just 14 seconds remaining in regulation.
“It was unreal. I didn’t know how much time was left when I scored,” Macchiavello said. “I remember (Haught) rolling through and then I’m looking up at (State coach Pat Popolizio) and he’s celebrating. Then I looked over at the clock and saw there was only about five seconds left and I was like, ‘I’m about to be an NCAA national champ.’”
When the clock finally expired, Macchiavello threw his arms up in triumph, then jumped into Popolizio’s arms for a tearful hug.
“These guys put countless hours into training,” Popolizio said. “To me, it’s everything when a kid reaches his ultimate goal and wins the national title. That’s what we do it for.”
Macchiavello was one of several success stories for the Wolfpack in Cleveland.
Freshman Hayden Hidlay made it all the way to the finals at 157 pounds before having his unbeaten streak ended at 26 matches in a 6-2 decision to Penn State’s Jason Nolf. Redshirt freshman Tariq Wilson defeated three top-five seeds, including a 17-8 major decision against No. 3 Luke Pletcher of Ohio State to claim third place at 133 pounds while senior Kevin Jack won four straight matches in the consolation bracket to earn All-America recognition for the third time at 141.
State ended the competition with 80 points to earn its first team trophy, matching the best finish by an ACC school in NCAA history.
Of all the success stories, Macchiavello’s was the most unlikely.
He had a tough time transitioning to the college level after winning a state high school title in 2013, going 11-14 as a freshman at 184 and a pedestrian 9-8 the following year. It was at that point in his career that Popolizio suggested he redshirt to work on his strength and technical skills.
The year off turned into a springboard for him. The graduate student, who’s already earned his bachelor’s degree in finance, went 26-8 last year — beating five ranked foes along the way — before capping his career with his national title on Saturday.
“If you ask anyone outside the NC State program, this is not someplace I’m supposed to be,” he said. “It’s been a long journey, but throughout the entire time I just always believed that’s where I was going to get.
“The difference was the belief that you’re going to get there at the end and making sure you’re putting in the work and making the sacrifices you need to get there.”