And in front of an energized Carmichael Arena crowd, it was UNC’s smallest wrestler — an unranked 125-pound sophomore from Shoreham, New York — that put the team on his back.
Szymanski’s 5-3 win gave North Carolina (5-3) the three points it needed to squeak by the Cyclones, 20-17. But it almost didn’t happen.
About 30 seconds into the first period, the match looked over. Simmons had taken down Szymanski, which gave the Iowa State wrestler a solid but not insurmountable 2-1 lead.
Then the controversy started. Simmons forced Szymanski’s back to the mat and was awarded four more points. But North Carolina head coach Coleman Scott knew something was wrong.
“I saw it immediately,” he said. “I knew the side judge saw it too.”
What they saw was an illegal headlock. The referees would review it, but the wrestlers had to finish out the period first.
That gave Szymanski a chance.
“I knew at that point, no matter what happened, it was going to be reversed,” he said. “I knew the match wasn’t going to end.”
“So I fought off my back as long as I could.”
For more than two minutes, Szymanski made Simmons work. Sure, he was almost pinned by his top-15 foe. But he wasn’t going to give up.
“Kudos to James for fighting off his back,” Scott said.
The first period ended and, as expected, the referees determined Simmons’ headlock was an illegal move. His 6-1 lead returned to a 2-1 edge.
The time was reset to when the headlock happened, nullifying the previous two minutes of action. Szymanski and Simmons would basically have to wrestle another period.
When the match resumed, it was clear Szymanski’s determination had paid off — Simmons was visibly tired.
“It was a different opponent,” Scott said. “It took it all out of that kid.”
Szymanski scored two 1-point escapes and Simmons promptly scored one of his own to tie the bout. The two wrestlers cautiously circled each other as the clock ticked.
Neither wanted to expose himself for a takedown, but someone had to make a move. It was 3-3 — this wasn’t going to end in a tie.
Scott was watching the match intently. He alternated between a nervous walk along the mat and a stoic squat right in front of UNC’s bench.
His team needed this.
The team’s comfortable 17-5 lead had been erased after three straight Iowa State victories. All the momentum was swinging in the direction of the Cyclones (1-6).
With about 40 seconds left in the match, Szymanski made his move.
“I could tell (Simmons) was getting a little bit gassed,” he said. “I knew that if I was able to get in deep on him that I’d get a chance to score.”
Suddenly, Simmons was almost on the mat. Szymanski’s final push was working.
When the referee blew his whistle, the small crowd erupted. Two takedown points for Szymanski. The sophomore held steady until the final buzzer sounded, securing his win.
Then he got up, ran to the edge of the mat and stood in front of the cheering crowd.
Yes, this was just a regular-season match, and UNC had almost blown it. But Szymanski had won his biggest match of the season — and possibly his career.
He looked to the crowd, raised his arms and flexed. He had earned it.