Carolina wrestling captain Gino Esposito living the dream

Gino Esposito is a redshirt junior wrestling at 149 pounds for North Carolina head coach Coleman Scott.

Gino Esposito is a redshirt junior wrestling at 149 pounds for North Carolina head coach Coleman Scott.

North Carolina Athletics / Contributed photo

Foran graduate Gino Esposito’s dream was to wrestle at the highest level, a Division I school.

“I love it here at North Carolina because it is the perfect blend. I’m getting the best education in the country and I get to wrestle for one of the top programs,” said Esposito, a redshirt junior for head coach Coleman Scott. “When I got here, we were 42nd in the country. Last year we finished 7th. That is exciting.”

Esposito was quick to answer when asked about his favorite moment on the mat since coming to Carolina.

“Last year I got to start against Michigan and we won the dual by one point,” he said. “We were both ranked in the Top 15 I believe. I lost my match (at 149), but it was a special experience for me to represent the team in such a big match. It was at Michigan and there was a great crowd. My dad, brothers and grandparents surprised me. It is a moment that I will remember for the rest of my life.”

His unselfish answer was no surprise to Scott, who in 2019 led the Tar Heels to their best showing at nationals in nearly a quarter century.

“Gino is an amazing kid,” Scott said of his team captain. “Since he arrived on campus, he has been a leader. Guys gravitate toward him because of his energy that he brings every single day. He is the type of kid that does everything right, from in the wrestling room to the classroom to his diet. I have become a better coach just being around him.”

Esposito enjoyed great success as a scholastic wrestler, but even so living one’s dream can be a challenge. Everyone he has wrestled has been the best in their high school, the best in their state.

“When you get here, you come in and you are 17-18 years old,” said Esposito who is his first summer at Carolina weighed 140 and is now a natural 175 wrestling at 149. “Every single person is great. It can be humiliating. You come from your high school where you were winning all your matches and you can’t even get a takedown. I don’t think I got a takedown for my first few months.”

That was quite a change for Esposito, who is third in state history in takedowns with 472 from 2014-17.

“That is what I wanted: the opportunity to wrestle the best guys, learn, and keep plugging away,” Esposito said. “You have to come in every day and keep working at it. That’s is one of the greatest lessons that this sport teaches. Across the board, failure is part of it.”

To go from 42nd to 7th the team has to pull in the same direction according to Esposito, who won matches in four open tournaments in 2019.

“It’s sort of been a cultural shift over these last few years,” Esposito said. “It is a slow process and it takes buy-ins from everyone. Success by one, two or three people well that’s not enough for the team. It’s about everyone feeling like they are valued and part of something bigger than themselves.”

Earning respect on the mat has been a big part of that transition.

“Every weight has 3 or 4 guys that could be nationally ranked. There is so much depth in our lineup,” Esposito said. “That is one of the coolest things about the sport, whoever wins gets the position and it is completely fair. You weigh exactly the same, if you lose, you say, hey, you were better today.”

That doesn’t mean the process is easy on wrestlers second or third at their weight on the depth chart. Why not take a day off, take it easy?

“It is a light switch that has to be on all the time. To be on a great team, no matter how you feel on that day I’m going to do the right thing. I’m not going to cheat myself and I’m not going to cheat my team. When everyone does that, then over time those little details make the biggest difference.”

Esposito said that having the backing each day from his coaches is important.

“They are always telling us that the guys that are competing, and the guys that are second and third in the line-up, everyone gets equal treatment,” Esposito said. “You are not going to (individually) be in the limelight. Selfishness is the biggest barrier in any sport on any team. If a guy who is second or third string thinks he’s not competing (starting) so he can take it easy then it affects everyone. The younger guys look to the older guys. If they see someone slacking off, then they are going to justify it with themselves.”

Student-athletes at Carolina work non-stop. Day in day out they go from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. with classes, homework and two workouts. But Esposito, who studies in UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and is a Kenan Scholars member, has found a way for some me-time. That time, of-course, includes athletics.

“It has been great getting to know athletes from other sports,” he said. “I like to watch our women’s field hockey team. The players are amazing and the women’s soccer team is impressive. It is inspiring to see them striving for excellence. Since I was little going to a college like UNC, that I had read about and watched play, was something I wanted to experience. Now I’m part of it the UNC athletic tradition. Its surreal. Carmichael Arena has a cool atmosphere and our fan base is growing with us. It is great to be a part of that.”

Esposito, currently taking time off with a back injury (bone bruise, stress fractures), has two years of eligibility remaining and is eager to see what the future holds. Wrestling isn’t the end-all for Esposito.

“I’m not going to need to know how to do a single-leg takedown after wrestling. But how I drill to learn how to do a single leg is how I will do everything else in my life,” Esposito said. “It becomes something you don’t have to think about, I want to do it the best I can. My mindset is that I want to be the hardest worker at whatever I do.”

Hand-me-down principles from his family continue to guide Esposito.

“I wouldn’t be who or where I am without my family, their constant influence growing up,” he said. “I think of it like a tree. For a tree to be healthy you have to give it water and take care of the soil. It is easy to see the apple that comes from it. But that tree took decades to grow and had to be constantly cared for. I wouldn’t be anything without my family.”

william.bloxsom Twitter: @blox354