A journey that began three years ago in Binghamton came full cirlce Saturday night in Oklahoma City for two former Section II state champions, when North Carolina State redshirt sophomore Nick Gwiazdowski became an NCAA Division I wrestling champion, with Pat Popolizio in his corner.
Gwiazdowski, a 2011 Duanesburg graduate, was an All-American as a true freshman for Niskayuna state champ Popolizio at Binghanton University, then followed when his coach moved on to North Carolina State after that season. He beat two-time champ Tony Nelson of Minnesota, 4-1, Saturday night in the finals of the 285-pound weight class to become the first former Section II wrestler to win an NCAA Division I title.
Gwiazdowski wrapped up the win with a takedown in the final 15 seconds, allowing him time to realize what he had accomplished.
“There were a lot of emotions,” he said. “It was like, ‘I did it. I won the national championship.’ ”
“It’s worked out really well,” said Popolizio, who was a three-time NCAA qualifier while competing at Oklahoma State. “Nick’s very coachable, and we had a plan. It’s just a tremendous accomplishment for Nick, the staff and the program.”
Gwiazdowski, who was the second seed this weekend, had lost both of his previous collegiate matches with Nelson, but had come out on top when the two met in last summer’s World Team Trials.
Both coach and wrestler knew from the prior meetings that pushing the pace would be a key in Saturday’s final.
Gwiazdowski set the tone in the first period when he got in deep on a single-leg takedown try. Nelson fought it off, but would not be able to defend the move in the third period.
“Nick gained some confidence from wrestling Nelson in the offseason,” said Popolizio. “Even though he didn’t score in the first period, I think it was one of the big points in the match.”
Nelson had top position for the second period, but Gwiazdowski refused to give up points.
“He wasn’t going to turn me [to my back],” Gwiazdowski said.
“Nick made him work the entire two minutes,” Popolizio said.
Gwiazdowski gave up an intentional takedown to start the third period, then kept up the attack, sealing the win with the late-match takedown that came with Gwiazdowski barely keeping his foot inside the circle.
“I haven’t seen it, but I thought I was in,” said Gwiazdowski. “People have told me just how close it was.”
The second takedown came after Nelson took an injury timeout, giving choice of restart position to Gwiazdowski.
“We went through about 50 different scenarios,” said Popolizio of the huddle in the Wolfpack corner as Nelson got treatment. “The best place to be was on our feet.”
“That’s where I felt most comfortable,” said Gwiazdowski. “In the first period, I was trying to push the pace, to maybe get a stall call on him.
“After the injury timeout, I wanted to be neutral. I took another shot, and took him down. Then I looked at the clock and knew it was over.”
Both Gwiazdowski and Popolizio were coached in high school by Joe Bena, who was unable to attend the NCAAs after suffering a stroke last month.
“That made it even more special, to give coach Bena a DI champion,” said Popolizio. “I talked with coach Bena after every match this weekend. He was very excited and happy for us. It was just a very special weekend.”