By Betsy Veysman
Nick Gwiazdowski picked right up where he left off. The Binghamton freshman went undefeated as a high senior, winning all of his contested matched by pin. So it wasn’t too surprising when his first college bout ended in a fall over Adam Barnett of George Mason. For good measure, Gwiazdowski pinned his next opponent, Princeton’s Charles Fox, in the first round of the Binghamton Open the following day. The heavyweight then went on to take the tournament title with a 4-0 performance, including, fittingly, a fall in the finals.
“Honestly, we expected success from Nick right away,” said Bearcats head coach Pat Popolizio. “I’ve known him for a long time and knew his personality and attitude. He’s a true competitor who loves the sport and puts the necessary time and hard work into it.”
Gwiazdowski, on the other hand, was a little surprised by the smooth transition.
“Before my first competition, I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he said. “The coaches were pretty confident in what I could do, but I wasn’t as confident. But then after the Binghamton Open, I felt like it wasn’t such a big jump from high school. I felt like I could do really well.”
The Duanesburg High product has continued his successful rookie campaign, amassing a 17-4 record, including nine bonus point victories (with six pins). He upset Mike McClure of Michigan State, who was the fifth seed, in the opening round of the Reno Tournament of Champions and has registered other quality wins over Purdue’s Roger Vukobratovich and Eastern Michigan’s Wes Schroeder. He also took advantage of the opportunity to avenge his last high school loss by defeating Oklahoma’s Kyle Colling in a January dual meet and he nearly led his team to an upset of Cornell on Sunday when his major decision over the Big Red’s Maciej Jochym tied the dual score. (Cornell won on criteria).
But the focus for Gwiazdowski, currently ranked 12th nationally by theopenmat.com, is not on his wins. Three of his four losses this year have come to All-Americans, Levi Cooper of Arizona State (twice) and Alan Gelogaev of Oklahoma State. His other setback was against Drexel’s Kyle Frey. The two-time New York state champion is quick to recall his mistakes in those defeats, including some positioning errors and getting extended on shots. But he believes there is one thing he really needs to do to step up his game as the campaign progresses.
“The biggest thing for me right now is to ignore the name of the other guy and what singlet he’s wearing,” he said. “It’s just wrestling. There are no secret moves out there. I made the mistake of thinking about whether I could beat the guy in front of me in the middle of those matches. I know I just need to forget about who the opponent is and wrestle my match.“
Popolizio agreed. “Nick wrestled differently against those guys. He was a little hesitant on his shots. He gave them too much respect. If he doesn’t question his ability, but just goes out there and is aggressive and puts it on the line, he can make a lot of noise this year.”
Gwiazdowski, who weighs between 235 and 240 pounds, began the season with goals he now thinks were too conservative. At this stage, he and his coach firmly believe he can be an All-American in St. Louis in March.
“A good thing about Nick is that he soaks everything up, comes back and works on any mistakes he makes,” Popolizio said. “He has a lot of hidden strength. He’s not the biggest heavyweight, but he has great speed and conditioning. It’s also very important that he wrestles harder as the match goes along. All of those things combined make him a real candidate to make the podium.”
Ultimately, Popolizio believes the 2011 Junior Wade Schalles Award Winner as the nation’s best high school pinner can not only make the podium, but stand on top of it as an NCAA champion. In fact, discussions about a national title factored heavily during the recruiting process.
Gwiazdowski admitted that the proximity to home and his familiarity with the coaching staff played key roles in his decision to join the Bearcats. But there was also something else that drew him to Binghamton.
“We’re looking for our first national champion here,” Popolizio said. “Nick could have gone to almost any program he wanted to, but he was excited about the prospect of being our first national champion.”
“That definitely was important in my decision,” Gwiazdowski agreed, adding he was also looking at Penn State and Lehigh. “Being an All-American or a national champion at a lot of other schools isn’t such a big deal; it’s been done so many times before. But doing those things here on a team that is doing the right things and moving up the ladder was a really exciting opportunity.”
Gwiazdowski is hoping there’s more excitement to come in March.