RALEIGH — COVID-19 succeeded where everyone on NC State’s wrestling schedule failed in 2020.
It denied the Wolfpack a chance at victory.
Coach Pat Popolizio’s talented team went undefeated through its dual match season for the first time in school history, then swept to its second straight ACC Tournament championship.
It was all set to make a legitimate run at the national title, with eight wrestlers qualifying for the final meet in Minnesota last March, when the NCAA halted all athletic activities over coronavirus pandemic concerns.
The lost opportunity still stings. But because everyone on the team is back for another season together, the disappointment has also become a powerful source of motivation.
“We have this thing called ‘Double Down,’” said 165-pounder Thomas Bullard, one of five seniors on State’s roster. “We missed last year, so this year counts for double. This team is ready to go. We’re very fired up. The whole squad, top to bottom, we’re all in for this season.”
Although the Wolfpack’s toughest tests are still ahead, starting with Friday’s showdown against archrival North Carolina, Bullard and his teammates are off to a strong start.
Ranked No. 3 in the nation with 21 consecutive dual match victories, they’re off to a 4-0 start that includes a 27-6 drubbing of 12th-ranked Pittsburgh. Nine of their 10 starters are listed among the nation’s top 18 in their weight classes, and three — brothers Hayden Hidlay (No. 2 at 157 pounds) and Trent Hidlay (No. 4 at 184), and Jakob Camacho (No. 4 at 125) — are among the top five.
The other ranked wrestlers are Jarrett Trombley at 133 (No. 14), Tariq Wilson at 141 (No. 11), Thomas Bullard at 165 (No. 15), his twin brother Daniel at 174 (No. 11), Isaac Trumble at 197 (No. 17) and Deonte Wilson at 285 (No. 18).
As good as the team was in 2020, this version has the potential to be even better.
Not only are the returning wrestlers a year more experienced and determined, but the lineup has been bolstered by one of the nation’s best recruiting classes. It’s a group headlined by true freshman Trumble, who scored a 6-1 upset of Pitt’s fifth-ranked Nino Bonaccorsi in his Wolfpack debut.
“We have everybody back from a year ago, so talent-wise we’re in a good spot,” Popolizio said. “We’ve upgraded some weight classes and added a lot of depth. We’re dangerous when we’re all on the same page.
“The hard part is that you want to build chemistry, and to do that, you have to be around each other. With COVID going on, we’re talking on a computer half the time. It’s challenging.”
Challenging but not impossible thanks to a group of self-motivated athletes united by a common goal and leaders the likes of Hayden Hidlay.
“Starting out this summer, we needed to make sure we kept our heater rolling because we had such a great season last year,” the three-time ACC champion and All-American said. “We have a core group of guys that have been together, some of us for five years now. It was just a matter of how can we implement the culture into the new freshmen.”
The process started with a series of Zoom meetings, not all of which had to do with wrestling.
“We tried at least once a week to meet with the team, whether it was sharing a book someone was reading, talking about a podcast we’d all listened to,” Hidlay said. “All of that helped us out because whenever we were able to come back to campus, we were able to hit the ground running and get back to work. We spent a lot of time making sure we didn’t miss a beat.”
It’s an attitude that has helped the team avoid complacency as it awaits the postseason opportunity it missed out on a year ago. But as prepared as the Wolfpack are to take on all comers, it can still be tripped up by a familiar obstacle that’s out of its control.
COVID-19 has already hit close to home with both State’s men’s and women’s basketball teams forced into prolonged pauses because of outbreaks among their ranks. While the wrestling team is taking every precaution it can — from isolating itself whenever possible and practicing in small groups to the sanitizing of mats between bouts during matches — there’s no way to completely eliminate the threat of the virus.
That’s especially the case in a sport that involves so much close physical contact.
“One thing I trust is the discipline of our team,” Hayden Hidlay said. “In basketball, they have to go up against five guys at a time. In wrestling, it’s not as bad because you’re either practicing with the guy you live with or just one partner for the week.”
So far, the Wolfpack have managed to stay COVID-free since the start of competition. Staying that way, however, isn’t always in its control.
“I hope these (other) guys are doing the same things we are trying to stay safe,” Thomas Bullard said of his team’s opponents. “I could win, but if he infected me, that would be a loss. It would be heartbreaking if something like that were to happen.”