It was supposed to be a redshirt year for University of North Carolina freshman wrestler Nick Lirette. Instead, it was a year he says offered more learning experiences than any other in his life. The Hahnville High School alumnus earned his way onto the Tar Heels starting roster, taking on competition in the 133 pound weight class, and while he took his lumps, Lirette says he wouldn’t trade it.
“It was tough,” Lirette admitted. “There were a lot of adjustments I had to make with academics, social life and with wrestling. But after all the failures and successes I had, I’ve learned a lot. And I mean a lot. I’ve completely changed since I’ve been out here.”
On the surface, Lirette’s 8-16 varsity record in his first year as a Tar Heel doesn’t truly convey what the former Hahnville state champion was able to accomplish. It’s rare for any true freshman to start for a major program, particularly one boasting the tradition of North Carolina.
But Lirette set a goal for himself — he circled a target date on his calendar for himself, making a concrete goal to earn his way onto the Heels’ active roster. He hit the target: coaches gave him the opportunity he desired in early November, and he won his first two varsity matches. He started the rest of the season from there.
Lirette said the chance to start will give him a leg up for this season, which begins in two weeks.
“If I hadn’t had this chance, I wouldn’t realize what the college grind is all about,” Lirette said. “There is absolutely no room for error during the college season. You’re constantly working out and cutting weight. It’s not a negative, but until you experience success and failure at this level and understand what it takes, you have to go through that adjustment phase.”
One match in particular showcased why the former Tigers star found himself on UNC’s radar: a Jan. 23 victory at home over North Carolina State’s Jamal Morris, at the time the No. 15 ranked 133 lbs. wrestler in the nation who had defeated Lirette decisively earlier that season. Lirette won by an 8-7 decision and said he “couldn’t stop smiling” in its aftermath.
“I was in the zone,” Lirette said. “We were at home for a dual meet called Brawl at the Hall. They set up a mat inside of Memorial Hall, which is like a theatre … I guess the atmosphere just got to me and I performed my best. I put everything on the line, almost prepared to die if I had to. It was really surreal.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself (after the win). Especially being in front of my home crowd going wild, the second to last match of the night … we needed some kind of upset to get close with NC State. We performed great for that dual.”
That kind of success wasn’t so unfamiliar to him, given his history. Lirette went 53-1 as a senior en route to earning the state crown at 138 lbs. That followed finishes as third place and state runner-up in his junior and sophomore seasons, respectively. He finished his Hahnville career with a record of 212-30, that win total representing the most in Tigers history.
Lirette recalls his freshman year at Hahnville, when wins were tougher to come by, and knowing he pushed through that to achieve great success fuels his fire at UNC.
“It was kind of strange coming off being so confident in my senior year, being the best guy, to a guy who really tries hard in the room and doesn’t produce too much,” Lirette said. “That kind of shock makes some people quit, but it makes me want to get back at it and give it another shot because I can’t live with just not doing what I want to do.”
That said, Lirette believes confidence in his abilities will be key going forward. He admits he may have over-trained and prepared at times last season to account from the leap from high school to the collegiate mat, leaving him burned out by season’s end.
“I was afraid I needed to catch up with people and was attempting to make these big leaps vs. the little tweaks I needed,” he said. “I have to be smart about it. If I had confidence in my ability and what my coaches recruited me to do, none of that happens.
“I’m glad I was able to start early, but I really want to produce for these guys. I was put out there for a reason, and if I’m not fulfilling that reason, it’s pointless for me to start. I need to get myself mentally and physically at that caliber, because all of our coaches believe in me.”
As he prepares for his sophomore season, the one thing that’s certain is he’s enjoying the ride.
“I used to hate the color blue, now I love it,” he said, referencing UNC’s famed traditional color. “The culture up here is just amazing. I wouldn’t want to be anything else but a Tar Heel. The first time I took a visit out here, I knew, right then and there, this was the place for me. It’s gotten better and better ever since.”