With an already loaded field at 174lbs, the competition is about to reach a whole new level of insanity. Whether you’re a diehard college wrestling fan or a casual watcher who only really pays attention around NCAAs, chances are you’ve heard the name Hayden Hidlay.
As one of the most decorated wrestlers to come out of North Carolina State, he has become the 10th Wolfpack wrestler to win four ACC titles and the first to become a four-time NCAA All-American. With the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hidlay has decided to wreak havoc on the mat for one last season, this time making the jump to 174lbs.
There’s No Place Like Home
Coming out of high school, Hidlay was one of the biggest recruits from the 2015 class, which resulted in some of the biggest schools having their eye on him. With his choices narrowed down to Lehigh, Purdue, NC State and Virginia Tech, Hidlay committed to NC State as a junior because he felt it was the best fit for him.
“I had gone on a lot of unofficial visits and seen kind of what I wanted to see. I knew I was a good fit at NC State and the coaches made me feel like it would be home. Fast forward like eight years later and I’m still here, it ended up being a pretty good decision for me.”
Pack Picks Up Steam
One of the points of interest that drew Hidlay to Raleigh was the opportunity to be a part of a team that was in a rebuilding phase. He knew there was a chance to turn NC State into a powerhouse program
“At the beginning of my high school career, they were really bad. Pat (Popolizio) came into Raleigh and kind of started from scratch and had to build the roster that he wanted to and build the culture that he wanted to.”
Around his sophomore year of high school, NC State started to catch his eye, along with a lot of wrestling fans, as they were beginning to recruit higher level kids and see results at the NCAA tournament with national titles from Nick Gwiazdowski in 2014 and 2015, along with a 5th place finish from an unseeded Kevin Jack the same year.
What really made Hidlay content with his decision was the Wolfpack’s 2016 season performance. With dual wins over Iowa and Oklahoma State on the road, as well as their first ACC tournament championship since 2007, Hidlay said, “Seeing that play out made me trust in their vision quite a bit just because everything that the coaches were telling me – that, ‘This is a great place for the best guys in the country’.”
In the class of 2016, FloWrestling ranked Hayden Hidlay #6 in the country. The program had never signed a recruit who was ranked as high as Hidlay at the time, so he claimed there was some faith involved in his decision and trusting in their vision. “There were some other bigger schools, but I was able to tell with the things they had in place that they were going to be a big wrestling school.”
Establishing The Culture
Hidlay found importance in being a part of a team that was fighting its way into the national conversation. He accredits Wolfpack Wrestling alumni for setting the program up for success.
“A lot of those guys might go unnoticed or underappreciated, but the team that came before me – guys like Nick Gwiazdowski, Kevin Jack, Pete Renda, Tommy Gantt – those are the guys that really set up this program to start.” Since those wrestlers weren’t blue chip recruits coming out of high school, they had a lot to prove. Hidlay feels that their gritty mentality and refusal to give up helped formulate a team that was able to compete with the best in the country.
“Seeing those guys kind of inspired me because they had that great team, but they didn’t have a great NCAA finish. So, whenever I got to campus, that was the big thing. We have to take that next step and become a great overall team and have a high finish at NCAAs.”
In regard to his progression as a wrestler, Hidlay emphasized the culture of the NC State program. “You have a lot of guys who are willing to do a lot for each other. And it’s not just the guys on the team. It’s the coaches, it’s the support staff, you know? All the guys that we have.”
The “Pack” Mentality
The greatness of NC State lies in the fact that the entire pack is strong together, which is why their culture slogan is “pack mentality.”
While there are some guys who may not have the opportunity to wrestle on the floor of Reynolds Coliseum, Hidlay feels that they are a major piece of the puzzle in growing the program by pushing him and his teammates, trying to make them better.
“Whenever you build a really good program, you might just look at the ten guys that are out there starting, but the best programs are the ones that have like three or four deep where you know that you can count on them to be good partners, you can count on them to step up in a dual meet if they need to.”
The luxury of knowing there will be someone who will push him past his breaking point on any given day has been a pivotal role in Hidlay’s success.
Nothing To Lose
Moving up one weight class is a fairly common thing that wrestlers do every year; however, jumping two weight classes, especially at the Division 1 level, isn’t something you see every day. Although, it is not unheard of as Michael Kemerer from Iowa made the same jump a couple years ago and saw success with a national finals run in 2021.
For his final season, Hidlay has decided to move up to 174lbs. The main stance Hidlay took in his decision to move up was him mentally enjoying the whole process of wrestling.
Having put so much pressure on himself to succeed in the last few years and not reaching the goals he had set for himself, Hidlay feels that a big issue has been his weight cut to 157lbs. “I’ll never complain about it because I was able to get down to weight and I never really had too many performance issues because of it. It’s just a lot for a person to go through for four years.”
A Revelation After the 2021 Season
Hidlay had a revelation after the conclusion of his 2021 season, realizing he had spent his whole career getting down to 157lbs and never seeing the results he wanted. He figured if he had the opportunity to get one last shot at a national title, he might as well change a couple things up.
“I think the big thing for me was, I’ve got this extra year and it has allowed me a lot of freedom to be like, ‘What do you really have to lose? Because you’ve had a great career so far, why not enjoy every bit of it now?’”
Many people wondered why Hidlay didn’t just move up to 165lbs rather than making the seventeen-pound jump. Hidlay felt the issue would be that he would be in the same position he was in trying to make 157lbs.
“There were points where I was running upwards of twenty miles a week just during the offseason, just to keep my weight down so I could be in striking distance of 157. I knew once I stopped doing that, I was just going to gain weight. If I wrestled at 165 it would just be the same thing over again.”
A Healthy 174lbs
Hidlay claims that he feels like gaining enough weight to become a healthy 174 pounder and not having to worry about a weight cut will be more beneficial for his performance. While it is nearly impossible to wrestle in college without having to cut some amount of weight, Hidlay easily got up to the low 180s and feels like he is a good size for the weight class.
“This year is all about, ‘Can I enjoy this?’. I still get to provide for my team, and I still get to provide leadership and be in the lineup, but sometimes you have to make a little bit of a selfish decision for yourself. Yeah, going up to 174 is quite a risk just because of the size and how new it is but I really just want to enjoy it. That’s what it comes down to.”
World Class Preparation
Over the offseason, Hidlay made his way through the senior level circuit, finding success at 79kg with a Senior National title and a top six finish at the World Team Trials. “Once you get to this level you can’t be taking a lot of time off. Whenever you’re wrestling in the offseason, freestyle wise, you just get a whole new set of competitors that push you to be the best.”
Going up to arguably the toughest weight class this year with multiple returning national champions and All-Americans such as Michael Labriola (Nebraska), Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech), Carter Starocci (Penn State), and Michael Kemerer (Iowa), Hidlay knew that World Team Trials was going to be a huge test for him. “I show up to trials and I draw Jordan Burroughs in the first round. There’s no better way to prepare yourself for this jump that I’m making than getting to wrestle a guy like that.”
Having wrestled at 157lbs his whole career, this weight jump poses a new set of challenges. Hidlay wanted to wrestle at the World Team trials so he could get a tournament at 174lbs under his belt and feel out the weight from a competition standpoint.
“I got a lot of confidence from that because I’m not small for the weight class by any means. Even though I took some losses and there were some things that got exposed from wrestling those top guys in the world, I feel very confident that I can do well at that weight class.”
Brothers of Destruction
Hayden Hidlay has a rare privilege that not many people have the opportunity of getting: being training partners with his younger brother, Trent Hidlay, 2021 NCAA runner-up at 184lbs. Wolfpack fans are calling the back-to-back duo at 174lbs and 184lbs the “Brothers of Destruction.”
Having someone who has witnessed his entire career and pushes him to reach the goals he has set for himself has been a pivotal role in Hayden’s training. “I think it helps me stay grounded. If I can compete with him and learn from him, I’m going to do fine at a weight class that’s even smaller than he is.”
Being able to wrestle with a bigger body, especially one that knows the ins and outs of his wrestling style, has been a driving influence in Hidlay’s development into his new weight class. “It forces you to try different things. It forces you to perfect things that they know are coming.”
What Hidlay finds most important in his training situation is being able to do it with the person he spends the most time with. “We’ve been best friends for a long time and just to be able to do that together is something that I’ll remember forever. Regardless of how this season goes, I’m just glad I got to do another year with him.”
The 174lb Meat Grinder
The 174lb weight class is, without a doubt, going to be a bloodbath this year. With returning national champions like Mekhi Lewis and Carter Starocci, as well as All-Americans in Michael Labriola, Ethan Smith from Ohio State, Michael Kemerer and Jackson Turley from Rutgers, adding Hayden Hidlay to the mix is a recipe for absolute chaos come March.
Even with the loaded field, Hidlay is excited to take on the challenge. “If I’m really meant to do this and if I’m able to do this, it’s going to be a pretty special season just because of all the roadblocks you’re going to face. It’s not like there’s just one guy, two guys anymore. There are five guys that you’re going to have to be better than.”
The fifth-ranked Wolfpack will be heading to the Journeymen Wrestling National Duals in late December along with No. 1 Iowa, No. 2 Penn State and No. 6 Virginia Tech. This poses the possibility of Hidlay meeting Starocci, Kemerer, and Lewis all in the same weekend, an opportunity he is looking forward to. “It allows me to have that really high-end competition during the season. And that will set me up for the ACC tournament and NCAAs.”
Privileged for the ACC Rivalry
What makes this year so different for Hidlay is his ACC competition with 2019 NCAA Champion, Mekhi Lewis, at his weight.
“In the years past in the ACC I’ve always been the favorite. I think now that there is somebody who has already proven themselves as a national champion, it’s going to make my game have to be elevated because not only am I going to have to see him at the dual, but I’m also going to have to see him at the ACC champions and I’m going to have to see him at NCAAs.”
While most people would see the field he has to compete against as a brutal trek, Hidlay sees it as a privilege. “I chose this for myself, it’s not like I’m unlucky or anything. I chose to do this. I’ve wrestled the best in the world, and I know the competitors I’ll face this year are right up there.”
As one of the main reasons in his decision to go up two weight classes stemmed from enjoyment, Hidlay has chosen to immerse himself in the opportunity to compete in such a talented field.
Falling Short at NCAAs
If you take a look back at Hayden Hidlay’s national tournaments, they have all come down to one key match that either made or broke his tournament.
In 2018, he was shut down by Jason Nolf of Penn State in the national finals. Just a year later, he came back and nearly beat Nolf in the 2019 semi-final match. Unfortunately for him, a controversial call in the first period and failure to score in the closing seconds kept him from prevailing. That year he ended with a fourth place finish. In 2020, we saw Hidlay at the top of his game; but sadly, due to COVID-19, we did not get to see that come to fruition.
Finally in the 2021 season, he lost a close bout to eventual national champion, David Carr of Iowa State, in the semi-finals. He later fell in a high-scoring showdown against Jacori Teemer of Arizona State in the consolation semis, coming out with fifth place.
Hidlay is capable of becoming a national champion, but he feels he needs to make changes in his wrestling to break past that wall and make it to the top of the podium. “I think part of it is that some guys have been able to game me and kind of minimize my offensive attacks. It’s like, yeah I have a great series in underhook, but whenever that gets shutdown, you still have to be able to score.”
Over the offseason, Hidlay has worked on being more open, taking more chances and wrestling with some more freedom. “If I’m going to lose, I don’t want it to be because I got into a dog fight and I lost a low scoring bout just because I couldn’t score.”
As of late, Hidlay feels that he hasn’t been putting as much pressure on himself and has been trying to have fun with it, resulting in a better mental state heading into matches.
“I think wrestling has been a little bit more natural for me since I’ve gone up. Just, whenever you look at a tournament like that, you’re going to have to beat four or five really good guys. I think that when it gets to that point where you’re wrestling the best guys that are really challenging you, I think I just have to be a little bit more open, and free with not being afraid to make any mistakes. I feel like that’s what has hurt me in the past.”
Hidlay feels that having to beat some of the best guys in the world is going to be a great learning experience for him in figuring out different ways to score and winning close matches he hasn’t been able to in the past.
A New Hayden Hidlay
There is no question that Hayden Hidlay is in the conversation for a national title at 174lbs. He has been in the limelight on multiple occasions, and with a field as loaded as it is, it will be fun to see if he can figure out how to prevail in those close bouts that have hurt him in the past.
Hayden Hidlay’s style has focused on being stingy, staying in good position at all times, and capitalizing on his opponent’s mistakes; however, now that he has nothing to lose in 2022, it will be exciting to see a more fearless and open approach to his already-dominating style.