Big Red graduate preps for NCAA Division I wrestling tournament

LANDING IN CLEVELAND — North Carolina State’s Tariq Wilson, a Steubenville Big Red graduate, competes during a match earlier this year. Wilson and his teammates will compete in the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships beginning Thursday in Cleveland. -- Contributed

CLEVELAND — Tariq Wilson has never been one to shy away from a challenge.

Whether one’s talking about peewee, high school or now major college wrestling, the Steubenville Big Red product, who won four OVAC titles and placed in Division II’s state tournament four times with a pair of runner-up finishes, has taken on all comers — and fared quite well most of the time.

The current North Carolina State wrestler is about to embark on his biggest challenge thus far, however.

Wilson and his Wolfpack teammates touched down at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport Tuesday afternoon to continue their preparations for the start of the NCAA Division I National Wrestling Championships, which will begin a three-day stay at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland Thursday morning.

Wilson, who is a redshirt freshman, earned one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s automatic bids at 133 pounds to the NCAAs by virtue of finishing fourth in the ACC Tournament last month.

“Placing fourth, I was a little bit depressed, especially since I ended the day and tournament with a loss,” Wilson said during a recent phone interview. “But, realizing I had qualified for the national tournament and I had a chance to make ammends for the ACC helped me to get over that.”

After sitting out the bulk of 2016-17 season and competing only in open tournaments with his redshirt, Wilson joined the squad for this season with an even bigger hunger.

“I’ve been working hard to achieve this goal (of qualifying) and hopefully placing,” Wilson said. “The redshirt year definitely helped me. Coming into the season, the coaches and I had a long talk, and they thought getting to nationals was possible and it could be accomplished.”

With the goal of getting there reached, Wilson can now start to fully take aim at the next mission, which is to string together any combination of three victories this weekend to earn all-American laurels.

Entering with a strong 22-9 record, Wilson has built quite a resume already, including being named the ACC’s Wrestler of the Week in late January after he knocked off the 10th seed in last weekend’s tournament and a returning All-American in Jack Mueller of Virginia.

Wilson doesn’t have a bad loss on his ledger. He’s dropped two decisions to teammate Jamel Morris.

“Wrestling against so many of the best kids in the nation and doing pretty well has raised my confidence level,” Wilson said. “I’ve been right in the mix, but a few mistakes have cost me or the outcomes could have been different. Anything is possible. Plus, going on the mat knowing you’re wrestling not only for yourself, but for your team helps, too.”

His other seven setbacks all came to seeded competitors in this weekend’s tournament.

“I have just continued to push myself each day,” Wilson said. “Anything can happen when you step on the mat, especially at the national tournament. You see upsets, a seeded guy getting knocked off or an unseeded guy placing all the time.”

Wilson, who is ranked nationally in five of the six polls that are utilized, will need to pull some of the magic, starting in the opening round when he takes on Missouri’s John Ernest, who is seeded fifth.

“I don’t get too worried about the draw or brackets,” Wilson pointed out. “Where you are on the bracket really doesn’t matter because you still have to go out and wrestle well and wrestle hard. Everyone is 0-0 at this point, and I am just going to continue to work hard to accomplish my goals.”

As if there wasn’t enough motivation for Wilson, but when you consider Wilson is the lone Ohioan on the N.C. State roster, having his first NCAA Championship meet just over two hours from home certainly adds to the excitement level for Wilson.

“It means a lot to be back in Ohio,” Wilson said. “Having some family and friends be able to be there and see me compete is exciting. I don’t look at it as extra pressure or anything. I just know those people are rooting for me.”

Regardless of what happens on the mat this weekend, Wilson is going to enjoy the event, and he plans to use it to his advantage during the rest of his career.

“This entire experience has made me want to work even harder and focus even more on the little things,” Wilson said. “If I don’t wrestle well, I won’t dwell on it because I know I have three more years to go. I’ll just work even harder in the offseason, improve my strength and technique to just better myself for the upcoming seasons.”