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Joe Giglio | The News & Observer | December 16, 2018

How NC State is trying to turn college wrestling into a must-see event

Watch Tariq Wilson's surprise run at the 2018 wrestling championships

On the mat, Pat Popolizio has N.C. State's wrestling program in the same stratosphere as national powers Penn State and Ohio State.

The seventh-year Wolfpack coach would like to catch up to the Big Ten heavyweights in another way.

"What you see at Penn State and Ohio State, that's the kind of atmosphere you want to create," Popolizio said. "We have the ability to do that at Reynolds."

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N.C. State, off to a 5-0 start and ranked No. 7 in the country in the coaches' poll, hosts No. 11 Nebraska (4-1) on Sunday at Reynolds Coliseum at 1 p.m.

The Wolfpack pep band will be there, the cheerleaders, too. For a home match with the Buckeyes last year, N.C. State drew a school-record 3,905 fans.

"You have to show people that it's an event," Popolizio said. "That's what is important for us in the next step to grow wrestling in this area."

Popolizio's team have made the necessary progress on the mat. The Wolfpack finished tied for fourth last season in the NCAA championships, which marked the best finish in school history and tied for the best by any ACC team.

Popolizio has led the Wolfpack to five straight top-20 NCAA finishes and an ACC title (2016).

N.C. State had to replace six starters (out of 10) from last year's lineup, including 197-pound national champion Mike Macchiavello and Kevin Jack, a three-time All-American at 141 pounds.

MORE: 5 questions with a returning national champion: Spencer Lee

"This is a very inexperienced group," Popolizio said. "We have to be consistent and when you're young, that can be a challenge."

The Wolfpack has been able to reload this season with a strong class of redshirt sophomores and the help of a graduate transfer (149-pounder Justin Oliver).

Hayden Hidlay (157 pounds) and Nick Reenan (184 pounds) were the top wrestlers in the 2016 recruiting class, which ranked No. 1 in the country. Hidlay and Reenan are both ranked in the top-5 of their respective weight classes and will have a top-5 opponents in Sunday's match with the Cornhuskers.

This is the first of four consecutive matches N.C. State will have against ranked nonconference opponents. Then there's a Jan. 6 date with No. 2 Ohio State on the road, which will be shown on ESPN2.

"Historically, we've done well with the Big Ten teams in dual meets," Popolizio said.

N.C State has won five of its past seven meets with Big Ten foes.

Popolizio will know more about his team after the showdown with the Cornhuskers. The two programs have met four years in a row, with the visiting team winning each time. N.C. State won 29-3 in Lincoln last season.

"We'll see come March," Popolizio said. "It should be a year of a lot of growth." 

MORE: Penn State wrestling remains No. 1 in college wrestling power rankings

This article is written by Joe Giglio from The News & Observer and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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