Danbury to NC State wrestling pipeline only getting stronger

The Danbury wrestlers were going crazy over a match nearly 1,300 miles away.

The Hatters had stepped away from the practice mats to watch a stream as one of their own, Ryan Jack, competed for North Carolina State against Iowa in Niceville, Fla. A freshman, Jack battled closely with the No. 2 ranked wrestler in the country at 141 pounds, Jaydin Eierman, but eventually lost in a 7-6 decision.

The match captivated the Danbury wrestlers.

“It was pretty crazy,” Danbury coach Rick Shook said. “RJ (Ryan) almost pinned Eierman and it was just cool watching that. They all know those guys through the program and they were going crazy during the match. It was awesome for the program.”

Danbury wrestling has delivered an unparalleled standard of excellence during the past three-plus decades, winning 33 of 34 FCIAC championships, along with 25 Class LL and 18 State Open titles.

The Hatters have also developed a growing pipeline of athletes who are heading to North Carolina State, a consistent national contender under coach Pat Popolizio.

The current roster includes three former Hatters in redshirt sophomore Jakob Camacho (125 pounds), and freshmen Jack (141) and AJ Kovacs (157).

Another Danbury alum, Kevin Jack, a three-time All-American and four-year starter for the Wolfpack, has been on the coaching staff since his graduation in 2018.

North Carolina State is 7-1 and ranked No. 5, with its only loss coming to No. 1 Iowa 19-15 on Dec. 21. The Wolfpack have beaten two other ranked teams, defeating No. 10 Missouri 19-12, and No. 19 Princeton 32-9.

Among the Danbury wrestlers, Camacho is 8-2 and ranked No. 10 at 125 pounds, Ryan Jack is 11-3 and ranked No. 14 at 141, and Kovacs is 14-4 at 157.

Shook credited Kevin Jack with starting the connection between Danbury and North Carolina State.

“It’s what he wanted to do,” Shook said of Jack coaching. “He wants to coach wrestling and he also has his brother there. RJ (Ryan), we’ve known since he was a little baby boy, and Kevin’s his idol. Kevin takes care of all the Danbury guys out there. He is responsible for them.”

Coaching the Danbury wrestlers with the Wolfpack has been a unique experience for Kevin Jack, who saw their talent coming up through the Hatters’ ranks.

“It’s definitely pretty neat,” Kevin Jack said. “Obviously, growing up they were all right behind me. Through those days, I kind of helped guide them and followed what they did. Now I’m the coach and I’m still trying to do the same things for them and guide them the right way.”

Coaching his younger brother has also been a learning experience.

“I think I get a little more stressed out than he does most of the time,” he said. “That part is fun. There’s always the days when I’ve got to not mix up being a brother and being a coach. There’s been a learning curve with that for me keeping those two roles separate.”

Camacho has 50 matches under his belt during his time with the Wolfpack, compiling a career record of 38-12, which includes an ACC championship in 2020, when he was also named the Most Outstanding Wrestler at the conference meet.

Having other Danbury wrestlers in the NC State program, Camacho said, has been “humbling.”

“We understand each other so well and we’re each developing into our own person on and off the mat,” Camacho said. “It’s a one-of-a-kind experience that I’ll never forget.”

Camacho credited Shook with instilling the idea that “you get what you put in” while learning the sport at a young age.

“There’s a standard and the standard is excellence in Danbury,” Camacho said. “It shows. Year-in and year-out, coach Shook is able to do it with a new group of kids and eventually it leads to more success down the line at a higher level.”

Shook has noticed another Danbury impact with the Wolfpack when he heads to North Carolina to play in the program’s golf tournament during the summer.

“It was funny, we went to the golf tournament this year and all the Danbury moms and dads were working the tournament for him,” Shook laughed. “I said ‘is this a Danbury tournament or an NC State tournament. Now you’re stealing all my parents.”

The endgame for the Wolfpack is, of course, a national championship as a team, with each wrestler eyeing their own title as well. The program has been built to contend up and down the lineup.

“From when I first got here to now, a lot has changed,” Kevin Jack said. “Our success as a program and with individuals just made more people want to be around. That’s what we strive for the whole offseason and right now during the season. The whole lineup from 125 to heavyweight has the same thought process as we go out every week.

“They all have the same goals that they’re going to place at nationals, be an All-American and win individually and as a team”

david.stewart@hearstmediact.com; @dstewartsports