Once-dead Binghamton now a thriving program

So how much do you know about Binghamton University wrestling? Unless you?re a rabid college wrestling fan you might not know the back story about this program, a team that finished 21st in the NCAA Tournament a year ago, about five years after the program was given up for dead.

The architect of this resurgence is coach Pat Popolizio, a New Yorker and former Oklahoma State wrestler. This year?s team, led by returning All-American Justin Lister at 157 pounds, will likely surpass the accomplishments of last season?s team which won the Colonial Athletic Association title.

In Popolizio?s five years at the helm, the Bearcats have steadily improved in the conference with finishes of 9, 7, 6, 4, 1. And in the past two years, Binghamton has grabbed one of New York state?s top recruits. Freshman Tyler Beckwith (174), from nearby Greene High, was ranked in the top 20 nationwide.

And next fall, the Bearcats expect to have Nick Gwiazdowski (197-285), the 19th ranked recruit nationwide. Gwiazdowski hails from Duanesburg, N.Y.

Let?s go back to the dark days of Binghamton wrestling. The school was first a Division III team from 1969 and went to Division II in the late 1990s. In 2003, it was announced the school, like so many, was dropping the sport.

In stepped actor Billy Baldwin, a 1985 Binghamton graduate. He led a move to reinstate the program. It worked and after a dead season (2004-2005) former Edinboro wrestler Tony Robie took over the program. Robie was there for a year before Popolizio took over.

Baldwin, a former wrestler, leads a group of 10 or so alumni who form a core group of supporters for Binghamton wrestling. ?He?s on my speed dial. What he does (for Binghamton) is like a part-time job,? Popolizio said.

Popolizio came from coach Mark Cody?s staff at American University, another program that has shown steady progress.

?It was definitely a hard process, taking over a lower Division I team. We had to get the right kids involved, get them to our philosophy,? Popolizio said. ?And we have an administration that backs us and appreciates what we?ve done. I have my own style and beliefs but I?ve learned things along the line.?

Popolizio is concentrating his recruiting in the Empire State.

?We would love to get kids from all over, but our main focus is in New York,? he said. ?It?s one of the best states in the country.?

The Bearcat coach said the program is about half-funded meaning it doesn?t have the full NCAA scholarship quota of 9.9 scholarships. With success has come an increase of interest in the program.

?We now get a crowd for wrestle-offs that would be equal to what we got for dual meets,? Popolizio said.

This year?s squad could equal last season?s team. The Bearcats are the favorites for the CAA title, a championship that was once the domain of Hofstra, another New York school.

Coming into the season, Lister, who was unseeded in the NCAA tournament, is ranked as high as second by one ranking. It is the first time that any Bearcat has been ranked that high to start the season.

He?s joined by Donnie Vinson at 149 pounds, ranked from 11th to 14th; Anwar Goeres, 141 pounds, ranked 19th or 20th; Matt Kaylor, 165, 15th and 17th; and Nate Schiedel, 184, 18th and 19th. Lister was a three-time state runner-up in high school.
Popolizio appears to be building the program correctly. The schedule is a good mix of tough duals mixed in with some not-so-tough duals. The team opens Sunday with the Binghamton Open. About 350 grapplers were registered as of Wednesday. Then comes a grinder of a weekend as the squad will participate in the Body Bar tournament at Cornell (ranked No. 1 in the country) and then returns to host the Sprawl and Brawl Duals, where the Bobcats will go against Eastern Michigan and Michigan State.

Last season, the team went against nine of the top 25 schools.

?We want to put ourselves in a tough environment and we?ll continue to do that,? Popolizo said.

Popolizio said the walk-on wrestlers he is now getting at the school are the equal of the scholarship wrestlers he got in the first several years.

That the team has stepped up a notch can be seen in last week?s wrestle-offs. Beckwith, touted so highly, lost a 3-1 decision to a former backup grappler who had won 40 bouts over the past two years. That?s depth.