He might be swimming with the big fish, but Nick Gwiazdowski plans on making the best of his opportunity when the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships open today in St. Louis.
The 2011 Duanesburg graduate is one of just two true freshmen in his 285-pound weight class, and one of five Binghamton University Bearcats competing in the event for coach Pat Popolizio, a 1996 Niskayuna High School graduate.
“It’s a long season, so why not finish the best you can,” said Gwiazdowski, who gets No. 2 seed Anthony Nelson of Minnesota in his opening bout, the final match in the opening round. “My goal is to be wrestling on Saturday morning.”
That would mean Gwiazdowski would finish in the top eight and earn All-America status.
“I like my draw,” said Gwiazdowski, who goes into the event with a 25-6 record. “Coach has told us that there are always upsets in the first round. If he [Nelson] takes me lightly, and I can get the upset, that would be a great start.”
Gwiazdowski has been in the Bearcats’ lineup from Day 1 this season, coming off a pair of state high championships and strong finishes in some of the best offseason tournaments in the country.
He’s forced himself into the top 20 in four of the most respected rankings, and goes into the tournament ranked eighth by DI College Wrestling.
It hasn’t been easy. Gwiazdowski found himself undersized and a little unaware of the level of competition when the season began.
“I remember coming off the mat after one of my first matches, and telling coach that the guy I wrestled was tough,” said Gwiazdowski. “The coaches are telling me that the guy was awful. That opened my eyes.”
Gwiazdowski, who competed at 215 pounds as a high school senior, said he has added some 25-27 pounds to his 6-foot-1 frame.
“I’m up to 240, 242,” he said. “I wasn’t eating breakfast, so I made sure I was eating breakfast and get three good meals each day, plus protein shakes.”
Gwiazdowski hasn’t lost any of his quickness.
“I still like to attack, like to wear guys down,” he said. “The biggest difference I’ve found is that college wrestling is so mentally demanding. You’ve got to stay mentally tough, right from the start of the season.”
Gwiazdowski got advice from his older teammates and Popolizio — a three-time NCAA qualifier who won over 90 matches for Oklahoma State — as he prepared for what he hopes will be four trips to the national championships.
“Three of the other guys [senior 157 Justin Lister, junior 149 Donnie Vinson and junior 184 Nate Schiedel] have been there before, and they’ve told me what to expect,” Gwiazdowski said.
Gwiazdowski has gone 5-4 against fellow 285 qualifiers this season, with a pair of wins over Drexel’s Kyle Frey, the last in the Colonial Athletic Association finals.
“I’ve wrestled some of the guys who are going to be there, and I’ve seen a lot of the others,” Gwiazdowski said. “Wrestling on Saturday morning would be a great way to end the season.”