Greater Raleigh Sports Spotlight: USA Wrestling Takes Center Stage at Reynolds
Tuesday, May 14, 2019, 11am by Neil Amato
Route to wrestling World Championships goes through Raleigh
Photo courtesy of NC State Athletics
An interesting look at the sports event industry in Greater Raleigh, N.C.
Raleigh moved onto the radar of officials with USA Wrestling in part because of the rise of North Carolina State University’s (NCSU's) program under coach Pat Popolizio. Another reason is the effort of North Carolina USA Wrestling, the state association that works closely with NCSU.
Now, the Wolfpack is on the way to being noticed by more in the wrestling world. This weekend, Reynolds Coliseum will be the site of USA Wrestling’s World Team Trials Challenge Tournament, marking the first time a North Carolina venue has hosted such a high-profile event in wrestling.
The trials are Fri. through Sun., and tickets can be purchased at www.gopack.com/usawrestling.
The senior national portion of the event features numerous weight classes in three divisions—men’s freestyle, women’s freestyle and men’s Greco-Roman. Spots on the junior world men’s freestyle team are also up for grabs in the 20-and-under age group.
The World Team Trials Challenge Tournament is a key qualifying event for the World Championships in late summer in Kazakhstan (seniors) and Estonia (juniors).
All that means that the competition will be top-notch, with the nation’s best wrestlers and the sport’s hard-core fans converging on Raleigh, possibly for the first time. Popolizio believes they’ll like what they see, thanks in part to the work of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, which helped to secure the bid.
“Anytime you can have some of the best in the country on your campus, that’s beneficial,” Popolizio said. “It’s all levels, the best coaches in the country and it’s also the junior world trials, so some of the top prospects will be here competing.”
“It’s great exposure to have a lot of eyes on Raleigh.”
NCSU’s ascendance under Popolizio—the Wolfpack finished fourth in the NCAA championships in 2018, was ranked second in the final regular-season poll in 2016 and that season became the first school to win at powerhouses Iowa and Oklahoma State in the same year—was one factor in considering Raleigh as a host city, said Pete Isais, USA Wrestling’s director of national events.
Under Popolizio, the NCSU wrestling program has established itself as one of the top in the country
“Wrestling in North Carolina has really come to the forefront,” he said.
Reynolds Coliseum was also a selling point. The venue, which underwent a transformation on many levels four years ago, is the perfect size for an event such as this, able to host four mats at once but also providing the right feel.
“We’ve hosted some big dual meets here and shown we can fill it up with this area’s fan base,” Popolizio said. “It’s an intimate tournament, and sometimes an arena is too big. Ours fits the need very well.”
Popolizio knows of what he speaks regarding the World Team Trials, because he was once a participant. In 1993, he finished fifth in the trials, one year after a stellar career as a 184-pounder at Oklahoma State.
The competition figures to be intense, as just one wrestler in 10 weight classes qualifies for the team the U.S. sends to the world events.
“For a spectator, you’re seeing the best of the best competing,” Isais said. “You get past NCAA champs butting heads right out of the gate, so every match is just spectacular.”
One area in which competition won’t be as intense as in previous World Team Trials, according to Popolizio? Restaurant space.
“Sometimes, in a smaller area that is just the arena and hotels, there can be a lot of long waits for restaurants,” Popolizio said. “I don’t think that’ll be the case in Raleigh. Here, everybody can spread out and try different restaurants, and there’s lots of things to do.”
Popolizio and others are eager to make a strong first impression. He cited the work of NCSU athletic events personnel, “an army” of volunteers and the GRSA in making everything go.
“I’m hoping this is something they see as a first-class event,” he said. “This kind of competition has never been held in our area. For exposure, it’s very positive. It’s another factor that’s going to help us build our program up.”
And, possibly, continue to draw in some of the best wrestlers in the world.
Going to the mat: A true team effort was key for this weekend's events
All photos courtesy of NC State Athletics