NCSU
Caldwell

Roger Moore, NCAA.com

It’s considered one of the most memorable moments in the history of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.

Reigning NCAA champion Brent Metcalf, winner of the Hodge Trophy the previous season, was in search of his second consecutive 149 pound title in St. Louis. His one collegiate loss was considered a fluke by some so-called experts.

Metcalf’s opponent was an All-American as a sophomore from North Carolina State, the owner of that 'fluke' victory three months prior.

By the time the 2009 NCAA Championships were done, the name Darrion Caldwell dominated every conversation from St. Louis to Iowa City after the high-flying star beat Metcalf 11-6. He was awarded the tournament’s outstanding wrestler award in a landslide.

But a shoulder injury sidelined Caldwell and kept him from defending his title in 2010. It’s been a slow process working his way back, wrestling just seven matches this season.

On Sunday, the Wolfpack senior passed his first real test, beating seventh-ranked Jamal Parks of Oklahoma State 3-1. An explosive late first-period attack resulted in the match’s lone takedown, improving Caldwell's career record against top-10 foes to 16-4.

Just under two months from now in Philadelphia, Caldwell will look to finish his career in style less than two hours from his hometown of Rahway, N.J. 

“We need tickets,” said Caldwell, who improved to 102-12 for his career on Sunday. “My family needs tickets. I need almost 400 tickets. When I won a national championship my parents were in the nose-bleed seats. I couldn’t even see them. God-willing I make it there again and I hope they get the opportunity to get down close.

“But there’s a lot of time between now and then. I’ve got plenty of work still to do to get ready. I feel good, though. I think I've trained the right way to make sure I'm healthy when it matters most."

Caldwell brought a 146-4 prep record with three New Jersey state titles to Raleigh, N.C. Everybody 'in the know' knew that the possibilities were endless for the three-sport high school star.

NC State
NC State 149 pounder Darrion Caldwell

“(Assistant coaches) Jerrod Sanders and Tony Davis were (at NC State),” Caldwell said of the recruiting process. “Coach (Jordan) Carter brought me in and treated me well. It’s a beautiful place, a really relaxed atmosphere. It’s been a great experience.

“It’s not Oklahoma State or a place where wrestling is in the spotlight, but that might be changing over the next couple of years. We’ve got a young team and (Chris Phillips) coming in.”

As a freshman 141 pounder in 2007, Caldwell won 20 of 26 matches and finished one win from All-America status. His wild 1:40 of wrestling against Northwestern’s Ryan Lang in the quarterfinals is another one of those classic NCAA moments.

A year later he was 36-5 with 23 pins at 149 pounds. In the NCAA quarterfinals he knocked off former NCAA champ Dustin Schlatter of Minnesota before losing a 12-8 match to Bubba Jenkins, then competing for Penn State.

“If you look back, before that (finals match in 2009) I had some big wins,” Caldwell said. “Beating (Schlatter) was big, showed that I could not only go with those guys but beat them. I was fifth at a pretty tough weight class. My freshman year I had some nice wins but everything really came together (in 2009).”

As a junior during the 2008-09 season, Caldwell was spectacular, compiling a 38-1 record with the one loss by injury default.

During the three days in St. Louis, he outscored opponents 44-11 and added a pin in the first round. He dismantled Metcalf 11-6 for the 149 pound championship.

He’s had plenty of extra fans since.

“He has the mentality that he is going to win every match,” said Kenny Monday, a former NCAA and Olympic champion. “He’s not afraid to try different techniques. He has a confidence about him and the ability to score from a number of different positions. He has a reputation that forces a lot of his opponents to wrestle a pretty conservative match because he will catch you and pin you in a heartbeat.”

Caldwell’s numbers speak for themselves. Of his 102 wins, 56 are pins. Forty-eight of those pins have come in the first period.

Parks and Caldwell certainly didn’t wrestle what would be considered a wild match on Sunday. The North Carolina State senior knew it would be tough, a good late-January test.

“(Parks) is tough,” Caldwell said. “This was my biggest match since 2009. I feel like I still have a lot of work to do. I watched film, did my homework, I was really prepared for this match. And I was able to wrestle my match, really keep him off balance which is what I really look to do against everybody.”

Lee Pritts, an All-American at Eastern Michigan and 12-year veteran of coaching, joined the Wolfpack staff before this season. Pritts knows he’s working with a special athlete.

“It’s more about spending time with him with anything,” Pritts said. “Darrion has goals of being a national champion, a world champion, an Olympic champion. He can wrestle, there is no doubt about that, but we help him with tactics, strategy against certain guys.

“He’s very intense, very focused. But at the same time he likes the big show, he likes the spotlight. He’s really hard to attack. If you don’t commit to an attack he has the ability to make you pay with his quickness. He’s got more range than most. He’s obviously a special kid.”

Wolfpack head coach Carter Jordan has been there through thick and thin -- the championship run, a frustrating shoulder injury, his star pupil being off the mat for more than a year that has forced Jordan to be more than a coach.

“I’m never going to coach someone like (Caldwell) again, someone with that much talent,” Jordan said. “I consider him almost like another son at this point and it’s nice to see him work his way back onto the mat.

“Right now we are in phases. Our first phase was last fall, getting him through his toughest academic semester and put him in position to graduate (this May). I promised Darrion and his parents that when he came to North Carolina State he would graduate and be in a position to win a national championship.”

Jordan knows the circus that awaits in Philadelphia. Wrestling-rich Pennsylvania is a choice site for both fans and Caldwell supporters.

“It will be nuts for him, going back home to finish his career,” Jordan said. “Our job is to keep him focused, make sure he is at his best when it counts. Knowing Darrion, he will be ready.”

And being the showman that he is, he might just finish in style.