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‘Go Earn It’ Feature: NC State’s Wilson proved unseeded wrestlers can also excel
(Photo: Tariq Wilson of NC State entered the 2018 NCAAs unseeded at 133 pounds, but won five of six bouts, including a third-place victory over Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher.)
By Sandy Stevens
Unheralded and unseeded, Tariq Wilson entered the 2018 NCAA Division I Championships.
Two days later, the 133-pound North Carolina State redshirt freshman had earned All-American honors as a third-place finisher after knocking off the third-, fourth- and fifth-seeded wrestlers.
But he was far from a shoe-in for the podium.
As the 2018-19 season opened, in fact, Wilson wasn’t even in the varsity lineup, and he was 0-3 at 133 against the Wolfpack’s starter Jamal Morris.
Still, Wilson qualified for March Matness after placing fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference, in what Wolfpack head coach Pat Popolizio calls “a very competitive” 133-pound weight class.
Wilson had been wrestling since age 8 or 9, working out in and competing for a club his uncle owned in their hometown of Steubenville, Ohio.
“He used to say, ‘If you can stay on offense and go out and strive and score points, it’s going to be pretty hard for (opponents) to score points,” Wilson recalled.
As a prep wrestler, the four-time state Division II place finisher had secured All-American honors at the 2015 FloNationals at 120 pounds and went undefeated at the NHSCA Duals in 2015 and the Disney Duals in 2014. He also wrestled in the Junior World Team Trials at 60 kg after a fourth-place finish at the UWW Junior Nationals.
And now, with a 27-10 mark, Wilson’s charge to the big collegiate stage had begun.
He won his first match, defeating John Erneste of Missouri, 8-3.
In his second round, Wilson bested returning All-American and No. 3 seed Kaid Brock of Oklahoma State with a dominant 13-5 major decision. He avenged a loss to Brock from earlier this year when the two met in Naples, Italy, in a dual called Tussle for the Troops. In Italy, the Cowboy walked away with a 16-1 tech fall.
Then came Wilson’s only loss, in the semifinals against eventual national champion Seth Gross from South Dakota State. But posting five takedowns, Wilson took the No. 1 seed to overtime before losing by a fall in 7:18.
Between matches, Wilson said, he would stop in the stands to check in with his mother, Theresa Wilson, and his uncle, Jesse Hubbard.
“They told me, ‘Concentrate on what you’re doing. Stay on offense, and you’ll be able to accomplish anything,” he said.
“After that (semifinal) loss, I knew exactly what I had done wrong,” Wilson stressed. “I did not finish the single on my feet, and I stayed on the bottom, which led to him pinning me.
“I realized I needed to switch my mindset from the loss to competing in the other matches and helping my team get a trophy.”
And he did, scoring a 13-3 major against Scott Delvecchio of Rutgers and then wrapping up a memorable first NCAA Championships with another major decision. In that second win, he downed Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher, another opponent who had beaten him 7-3 in an earlier dual.
Noting Wilson’s constant aggressiveness that led to multiple bonus-point wins, Coach Popolizio said the Pack’s coaching staff was surprised not so much at what Wilson accomplished but the way he did it.
“He wrestled what we’d been preaching all year, and he dominated his matches,” Popolizio said. “I think he scored 24 takedowns in the tournament.”
Each time Wilson took a loss during the season, the coach said, he saw how much if affected him. “He took all those loses to heart. His inner drive was not to lose anymore.”
After his third-place victory, Wilson said Popolizio told him, “You worked hard for this. You set a goal. You trusted the process and you listened well. This is your moment. Enjoy it!”
Popolizio also credits Wilson’s teammates as good role models, including Michael Macchiavello, 197-pound national champion, and Hayden Hidlay, runner-up at 157.
“Tariq has the same great attitude,” Popolizio said. “They’re smart enough to know there’s a life beyond right now, and they want to do everything they can to be a national champ.”
With a school-record four All-Americans, NC State recorded its best-ever team finish by placing fourth at the 2018 NCAA tournament. The Wolfpack also brought home their first-ever team trophy from the NCAA Championships and tied for the best-ever finish by an ACC school in NCAA history.
A business education major, Wilson realizes he’ll be facing more pressure next season.
“I’ll have to wrestle like there’s a target on my back,” he declared. “I know people will be scouting me.
“But at the end of the day, it’s just wrestling.”
(Know a wrestler who has overcame obstacles who deserves to be recognized as the “Go Earn It Wrestler of the Month”? Send a nomination to Brian@GoEarnIt.com, include the athlete’s story/credentials/circumstances in a couple paragraphs. Please also include a high-quality photo.)