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PackWrestle: Middleweight Preview

NCAA Division I Men’s Wrestling Championship Photo by Jay LaPrete/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Earlier this week, we took a look at who will make up the lightweights for this year’s NC State wrestling team. If you didn’t get the chance to read Part 1, I encourage you to do so. If you don’t want to, then you’re dead to me. If you just want the quick and dirty, the group highlighted can be summed up with two words: young and promising.

In this edition we will focus on the Middleweights, which will boast our most experienced bunch.

149 Pounds

Matt Grippi (R-Fr)

Preseason Ranking: FloWrestling - NR / Trackwrestling - #19 / InterMat - NR

On paper, this appears to be the biggest hole for the Pack’s lineup this year. Grippi, a 3-time NY state finalist in high school, will aim to be “the guy” in his first season of varsity action. During his redshirt campaign last year, Grippi compiled an 18-7 record. He lost both of his matches to Top 25 opposition. While most believe the Yankee has the inside track to the starting spot, one guy to look out for is redshirt-sophomore AJ Leitten. Leitten (16-8, 3-2 vs Top 25 in 2018-19) is not ranked by any publications in the preseason, but the two split matches last year. Worth noting is that Leitten was named a Captain last week (with some pretty impressive company). This could mean absolutely nothing in regards to the starting spot, but it certainly caught my attention.

This decision certainly won’t be made by the time the season starts. Pop has a history of giving guys chances throughout the season to “take the job” when the competition is tight. So don’t be surprised to see this roster battle go into February, unless someone really stands out.

This is another weight, like 141, where there is no clear favorite for the title. Most, including myself, would probably put their money on the preseason #1 guy down the road in Chapel Hill, Austin O’Connor. For whoever mans the helm at 149 for the Pack, expectations are not quite so lofty. Getting a qualifier to the NCAA tournament in March should be viewed as a success.

157 Pounds

Hayden Hidlay (R-Jr)

Preseason Ranking: FloWrestling - #1 / Trackwrestling - #1 / InterMat - #1

That’s a lot of 1’s. Hayden, the elder of the two Hidlays we’ll see in the lineup this year, is coming off his second All-American finish in as many tries. 2nd place as a freshman, and 4th as a sophomore, only one podium spot will satisfy the Mug Dog* this year. And with 4 of his 5 career losses having graduated in March, you can see why he is the unanimous favorite. Oddly enough, the only guy remaining in college to hand Hayden a defeat, #4 Larry Early of Old Dominion, will be in town for the first dual of the season on November 15th. This sounds like an excellent opportunity to get out to Reynolds for an early season top-5 showdown.

Hayden was one controversial call away from dethroning the legendary Jason Nolf of Penn State in last year’s semi-finals. While nothing would delight enraged fans more than to see Hidlay get another shot at the 3-time NCAA champion, it is undeniable that his exit bodes well for Hidlay’s aspirations to be the top dog (pun 100% intended). Hayden’s results against the remaining 157lb contenders are certainly encouraging - he handled preseason #3 Ryan Deakin of Northwestern in last year’s consolation semi-finals, 8-2. It feels like his greatest threat lies in Iowa State’s phenom freshman David Carr. It is yet to be seen how Carr will hold up against elite college competition, but he is certainly someone to keep an eye on. With that being said, I still feel strongly that Hayden will claim his first NCAA title this year.

*Hayden’s self-given alias for his uncanny resemblance to the bulldog that graces every bottle of Mug Root Beer

165 Pounds

Thomas Bullard (R-Jr)

Preseason Ranking: FloWrestling - #11 / Trackwrestling - #14 / InterMat - #11

Another member of the vaunted 2016 recruiting class, Thomas Bullard kicks off what figures to be another year of back-to-back Bullards. His twin brother, Daniel, will be covered shortly as the projected starter at 174. Thomas finished last season with a 21-10 record and went 1-2 at NCAAs. Eight of those losses came to Top 25 competition. Thomas has done a solid job since arriving in Raleigh, however as a former Top 50 recruit, the seat may be getting a little warm with no All-American finishes to date in his career. Especially since there is quality depth behind him. Keep an eye out for Tyler Barnes, who I’m sure will challenge for the spot at the annual wrestle-offs on November 9th. I still favor Bullard in that match-up, but would not be surprised to see Popolizio make a change if his middling results continue. The coaching staff wants to see a jump out of Thomas this year, and another 1-2 showing at NCAAs won’t cut it.

It just so happens that Thomas is competing at one of the deepest weights in the country with seven returning All-Americans. Placing in the top 8 will be tough, but it is not out of the question for someone with Bullard’s talent. He has yet to get that signature win in his career, and I think if he can get one of those against a top guy, it can boost his confidence and possibly propel him into an AA spot. I won’t pick it, but I could see it. I’ll predict a Blood Round (top 12 - one win shy of AA honors) finish for Thomas this year.

174 Pounds

Daniel Bullard (R-Jr)

Preseason Ranking: FloWrestling - #20 / Trackwrestling - #20 / InterMat - #15

See above.

I’m just playing, that would be lazy. However, they are twins for a reason and their career results thus far are about as identical as their faces. Daniel tallied a 21-11 record last year and also went 1-2 at NCAAs. Just like Thomas, his results against lower- to middle-tier opposition are good. What is lacking is the performance against the top guys. Daniel will have his opportunities to get that signature win this year, and if he can get one, I think that will elevate his game.

Just like 165, this weight will be tough to crack into the Top 8 - there are seven returning All-Americans. Daniel is currently being viewed as the 20th best guy at the weight, and I do not think that will hold true. I see Daniel more accurately slotting in around the 10-14 range, which translates to a good shot at landing on the podium in March. If him and/or his brother could make this happen, it would be huge for the team race. But like his brother, I think Daniel will land one win shy of AA honors in 2020.

That concludes our look at the Middleweights. Please stay tuned for the final installment, where I will introduce the Upperweights.

**I have updated the Lightweight Preview with InterMat rankings, which were not available until Tuesday.