Wolfpack wrestling eyes NCAA crown

NC State had all 10 of its starters qualify for the national meet in Detroit

NC State's Tariq Wilson, pictured at last year's NCAA Wrestling Championships, is looking to help the Wolfpack compete for a national championship this week. (Pheff Roberson / AP Photo)

NC State wrestlers have built a championship tradition at the NCAA Tournament by winning nine individual national titles, including four since 2009.

Team success hasn’t come as easily.

Despite winning four straight ACC crowns, the Wolfpack’s best finish on the national level was a tie for fourth in 2018, a showing boosted by Michael Macchiavello’s title at 197 pounds.

That’s a mark coach Pat Popolizio and his team are shooting to beat as they prepare for this weekend’s national meet in Detroit.

With all 10 of its starters having qualified to compete, State is poised for a podium finish and has a legitimate shot at challenging traditional powers Iowa, Penn State, Michigan and Arizona State for an elusive national crown.

“We’re not far off to what it would take to win a national title,” said Popolizio, whose squad showed its potential earlier this season by coming within an eyelash of upsetting No. 1 Iowa in a 19-15 dual match loss in Florida.

“Any time you can bring home a team trophy, that’s a pretty big accomplishment for where we started. But if you’re in the top four, you’re only an arm’s distance away from reaching the top. If those guys show up and wrestle to their best, I think they can be in position to do that.”

The Wolfpack have four wrestlers seeded among the top four in their weight class. All of them — No. 2 Tariq Wilson at 149 pounds, No. 3 Trent Hidlay at 184, No. 4 Ed Scott at 157 and No. 4 Hayden Hidlay at 174 — have a legitimate shot at individual titles.

Wilson and Trent Hidlay are both ACC champions who have gone through the season undefeated in individual competition and both have enjoyed success at the national level with Wilson earning a pair of third-place finishes and Hidlay losing in the final of his weight class as a freshman last year.

Although Scott (22-1) is making his first career NCAA appearance, he’s coming off an ACC championship in which he knocked off defending national champion Austin O’Connor of North Carolina in the title match.

Hayden Hidlay, meanwhile, is the sentimental favorite of the group. State’s first four-time All-American, the 2020 ACC Wrestler of the Year has accomplished virtually everything there is for a college wrestler to accomplish except win an individual national title.

He has won more than 100 matches, four ACC championships and ranks second on the Wolfpack’s all-time list in winning percentage. But he was a national runner-up as a freshman in 2018 and missed out on his best previous shot at a championship when the 2020 tournament was canceled because of COVID.

Hidlay could have left after last season but chose to use the extra year of eligibility granted to all winter athletes by the NCAA because of the pandemic. He did so as a means of helping his team earn success rather than adding to his list of individual honors.

But despite moving up a weight class from 157 to 174, Popolizo believes the older Hidlay has what it takes to do both.

“He came back to make sure our team stayed where it was at, and I think he’s done that with some of the results he’s put up,” the Wolfpack coach said of Hidlay, who is 14-2 this season. “He’s been great to have back. He’s a great leader who has obviously had a lot of success. It would be nice (for him to do well), but the reality is he’s good enough to win it.”

But for NC State to have a chance at making a serious run at its first team national championship, it’s the other six wrestlers that hold the key.

“If we can get one or two guys that aren’t seeded really hot, which we’ve done in the past, that can be a difference-maker,” Popolizio said.

“Having all 10 there, you would expect someone to have a breakthrough tournament, and I think we have enough talent to make something like that happen. When you get into the NCAA Tournament, you never know who’s going to get hot and crazy things happen.”

Among the most likely candidates to score the points necessary for the Wolfpack to contend are Jakob Camacho, the Most Outstanding Wrestler at the 2020 ACC Tournament and the No. 14 seed at 125 pounds, and 197-pounder Isaac Trumble, the 15th seed with a style that — in his coach’s words — “can be challenging for people” in a weight class without a clear favorite.

The rest of State’s contingent consists of Kai Orine, the 15th seed at 133; Ryan Jack, the 18th seed at 141; Thomas Bullard, the 21st seed at 165; and Tyrie Houghton, the 21st seed at 285.

While 2022 is already a success with yet another ACC championship in the bank, a strong performance in Detroit this weekend can turn a great season into a special one for the Wolfpack.

“You only get so many times when you can sit back when it’s done and say, ‘That was a banner year,’” Popolizio said. “And the NCAA Tournament is one of those times.”