Wolfpack wrestling continues its climb

NC State’s win over rival UNC is the latest proof that Pat Popolizio’s squad is a national title contender

Redshirt junior Hayden Hidlay is the No. 2 wrestler in the nation at 157 pounds — one of 10 NC State starters ranked in the top 20 in their weight class. (Photo courtesy of NC State)

RALEIGH — The wall outside the wrestling practice gym at NC State’s Weisiger-Brown Athletic Facility is adorned with the photos of the Wolfpack’s seven national champions. At the far end is an eighth panel with a blurred image, labeled with the words: “Who’s Next?”

It’s a question that could soon be answered by a pair of brothers.

But while Hayden and Trent Hidlay are serious contenders to take their place among State’s wall of champions, their accomplishments won’t be complete unless they get to include the rest of their teammates in the picture.

It’s not a far-fetched goal.

Currently ranked third in the nation and undefeated at 13-0 after last Friday’s thrilling 16-14 win against No. 8 North Carolina at a raucous Reynolds Coliseum, State is a legitimate contender to bring home the first national team title in school history at the NCAA Championships in Minneapolis next month.

“It’s kind of a phantom picture up there, but every time I walk in this room, I can see the guy in that picture being me,” said Hayden Hidlay, a redshirt junior currently ranked No. 2 nationally at 157 pounds.

“In terms of the team, that’s what I came here to do. I came here to be with a really great team and to create something that’s never happened before at NC State.”

The Wolfpack came close in 2018, finishing fourth in the team competition with Michael Macchiavello winning an individual championship and Hidlay earning a runner-up finish. This year’s team has even more depth throughout the lineup with six of the 10 starters among the top 20 in the nation at their respective weights.

It’s a group that includes Hayden’s younger brother Trent (No. 3 at 184), Thomas Bullard (No. 10 at 165) and his twin brother Daniel (No. 18 at 174), Tariq Wilson (No. 11 at 141) and Nick Reenan (No. 20 at 197).

While there’s plenty of talent to go around, the trademark of this team — and the entire State program since coach Pat Popolizio took over in 2013 — is the energy with which it wrestles and the toughness it has displayed in pressure situations.

Heavyweight Dionte Wilson provided a perfect example of both Friday when, with the outcome of the rivalry match with UNC riding on his bout, he beat opponent Andrew Gunning 5-3 to clinch the team victory.

“We recruit a certain type of athlete, and it’s showing when these guys are the total package,” said Popolizio, whose energy and excitement on the sidelines carries over to his wrestlers on the mat. “That’s from our starters and all the way down to the guys who may not get to wrestle every day. They are all on the same page. They bring a mentality that’s just unique, different and willing to do the hard things when no one else is.”

It’s a mentality that pushed Wilson to stay on the attack instead of running out the clock while clinging to a one-point lead late in his decisive match Friday.

Leading by a single point, the sophomore didn’t simply hold to preserve his victory. He stayed on the attack and scored a clinching takedown, punctuating the move with shouts of “Not in my house!” over the din of the record crowd of 4,383.

“This is something we’re trained to do,” Wilson said afterward. “We prepare for these situations all week. Our coaches do a great job.”

That preparation, said Hayden Hidlay, is the secret to the Wolfpack’s success under Popolizio, whose teams have finished either first or second in the ACC in each of the past four years while compiling a conference dual match record of 22-3.

The wrestlers call it “the art of suffering.”

It’s a mentality that pushes them to do whatever it takes to win, no matter how much work is involved or how difficult the task.

“I think the strength of this team is that we all have the same business-like approach once practice comes around,” Hayden Hidlay said. “We’re all different, we all get motivated in different ways. But when it comes down to the time when we really need to focus in, I think that focus is what separates us from other teams.

“When we’re in there practicing the art of suffering, we can look to our right and look to our left and there’s guys that are feeling the same way. We’re never going to feel bad for each other. We’re going to get back up and get our job done.”

So far, they’ve gotten the job done every time they’ve taken the mat this season.

But there’s still plenty of work to do. State faces another ranked foe in No. 7 Virginia Tech this Friday before heading into the postseason.

Although it is a young team with no seniors on the roster, the Wolfpack wrestlers are keenly aware of their program’s tradition and the standard they’re being asked to uphold. They see it every day both on the wall of champions and in person thanks to frequent visits from past champions such as Macchiavello and Nick Gwiazdowski.

“We’re lucky to be surrounded by guys that have done well in this program and have stayed,” Trent Hidlay said. “It’s really special for us to have those guys around to learn from and lean on. Then every day I get to walk and see that wall and know that this is something that can definitely happen here.”