The goal of every team at the start of every season, regardless of the sport or the level, is to go undefeated.
It’s a standard few can to get close to, let alone accomplish. That’s what made the NC State wrestling team’s 2020 season so special.
Not only did the third-ranked Wolfpack win its third straight ACC regular season championship before backing it up with a second straight league tournament title, but coach Pat Popolizio’s team took care of business in style by going through its entire dual match schedule without a loss.
The accomplishment earned State’s wrestlers recognition as the North State Journal’s 2020 College Team of the Year.
“I’m just happy for the guys, their work, everything they’ve been doing,” Popolizio said after the Wolfpack finished off a 15-0 season with a convincing win against Duke. “It’s a good feeling when you don’t take a loss all year.
“I think it speaks volumes to have this type of season, dealing with any kind of adversity that gets thrown at them during a college season. There were multiple times guys were out and other guys had to step up, so I think that defines what NC State wrestling is about right now.”
Led by brothers Hayden and Trent Hidlay, both first-team All-Americans, State answered every challenge that was put in front of it, including a gauntlet of three straight wins against top-10 opponents.
The highlight of the season was a dramatic 19-14 victory against archrival North Carolina before a frenzied record crowd of 4,384 at Reynolds Coliseum.
After going back and forth with the eighth-ranked Tar Heels through the first nine weight classes, the match came down to one final bout — the heavyweight pairing between the Wolfpack’s Deonte Wilson and UNC’s Andrew Gunning.
Wilson clinched the match with a late takedown, riding out the final seconds by holding Gunning down on the mat while shouting ‘Not in my house!” over the din of the roaring crowd.
One week later, State rallied from behind over the final four bouts to beat No. 7 Virginia Tech 21-18, with the team’s smallest wrestler — 125-pounder Jakob Camacho — scoring the decisive victory with a pin in the next-to-last match.
Camacho went on to win the ACC title at his weight, joining Hayden Hidlay as a conference champion.
Not only did the Wolfpack sweep through the dual meet schedule and league tournament with a perfect record, but it also made a clean sweep of the conference’s individual postseason awards with Hayden Hidlay earning Wrestler of the Year honors, his brother Trent being named Freshman of the Year and Popolizio taking home the award for Coach of the Year.
“It makes me really proud,” Hayden Hidlay said. “This award means a lot to me because it is an accumulation of a lot of things. To be rewarded with this means a lot.”
Hayden finished the season with a 30-1 record (12-0 in dual matches) and was ranked No. 2 nationally at 157 pounds. Trent was 23-4 with a national ranking of No. 5 at 184. Four other State wrestlers — Camacho, brothers Thomas and Daniel Bullard, and Tariq Wilson — were also All-Americans.
In all, the Wolfpack had eight wrestlers qualify for the NCAA Championships in Minneapolis, including six seeded among the top 15.
But like all other winter sports athletes around the country, their shot at individual glory and the program’s first national championship was derailed when the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of all NCAA events.
“This sport teaches you a lot about life, and then when you have to deal with these kinds of situations, it’s like taking a really bad loss,” Popolizio said. “Your guys compete, you take a loss and it hurts, it burns. Everybody’s been through it at some point in their career, and this one’s probably the worst one yet because it was out of your control.
“At some point, a life lesson will be learned. I don’t know how we turn this into a positive, but we’ll figure it out and it will keep guys motivated and hungry long-term.”
If there’s a silver lining to the disappointing way the 2020 season ended for the Wolfpack, it’s that there were no seniors on the team — meaning everyone will be back for another run at ACC and national titles in 2021.
“This is what we work for, what we train for,” Popolizio said,” to win ACC championships and to compete and win trophies at the NCAAs.”