Illinois takes sixth at NCAA Championships

By Derek Barichello

The wrestling team went to the NCAA National Tournament in St. Louis looking to come away with a trophy; instead, they came back with a sixth-place finish. It marked the ninth time in 13 seasons that the Illini finished in the top 10 nationally.

Despite not achieving the team goal, the Illini had success on the individual level. Five Illini wrestlers came away with All-American status, highlighted by junior Kyle Ott’s second-place finish at the 125-pound class. Seniors Brian Glynn (184) and Mark Jayne (133), junior Pete Friedl (174) and sophomore Cassio Pero (141) rounded out the five. The five All-Americans tied with Michigan for the second most at Nationals; only national-champion Oklahoma State with seven had more.

“Overall it was a little disappointing,” said head coach Mark Johnson. “I was really proud of the guys who placed. We had five All-Americans – that ties a school record – and they did a great job.”

Ott pulled off the upset of second-seeded Nick Simmons of Michigan State 3-1 to advance to the championship. In that match, Simmons grabbed the early lead with an escape, but Ott tied it up when Simmons illegally locked his legs around Ott’s neck, sending the match into overtime. Just 30 seconds into overtime, Ott took a shot and recorded a takedown to conclude the match.

“In the end I was able to shift my shoulders in and shift my hips in and get my shot,” Ott said. “I beat (Joe Dubuque, his next opponent) twice last year and haven’t wrestled him this year. He’s a tough competitor. On any given day it can be anyone’s match.”

Unfortunately for Ott it was not his day. He dropped a heartbreaker 2-0 to Big Ten foe and fifth-seeded Dubuque of Indiana. It was the second time he finished as the national runner-up.

In the match, after a scoreless first period, Dubuque chose the bottom position and escaped for a 1-0 lead. It would turn out to be all he needed, as the second-seeded Ott was unable to comeback.

For the Illini, Glynn came the next closest to a national title, finishing third.

In the semifinals of the tournament, Glynn gave West Virginia’s Greg Jones, who went on to win the national title, all he could handle. Although Glynn lost 5-2 in that match, he held the early lead and was behind only 3-2 going into the final minute.

“I knew I was outmatched going in,” Glynn said. “The goal was to stay close and take my shot at the end. At times, he gets tired late. I took my shot and just came up short.”

After his semifinal loss, Glynn went on to win the consolation semifinals and then the third place match to earn All-American honors.

Friedl, who came in as the No. 3 seed, was another Illini wrestler that came up just short in the semifinals. The second-seeded Ben Askren of Missouri warded off each shot Friedl gave and went on to a 7-2 victory.

Friedl came back the next day, winning the consolation semifinal, but dropping the third place match to fourth-seeded Jake Herbert of Northwestern 6-3.

Fighting back in the consolation rounds, senior Mark Jayne was able to fight back into a seventh-place finish. Jayne was upset by Drew Headlee of Pittsburgh in the second round, sending him into the consolation bracket, but he would get his revenge in the seventh place match beating Headlee 5-3 to earn All-American honors.

The Cinderella story of the tournament for the Illini was Pero, who lost in the first round, but rattled off four consecutive victories in the consolation bracket to get to the consolation quarterfinal. Pero dropped the quarterfinal, but won in the seventh place match to garner All-American honors.

“He just keeps getting better,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t even a starter in the beginning, but here we are in the national tournament, and he’s an All-American.”

Despite the individual success by the Illini, the team was disappointed with the overall finish. One of the biggest disappointments in the tournament was junior Adam Tirapelle’s failure to place. Tirapelle earned All-American honors in his two previous seasons.

“Alex was just off this weekend,” Johnson said. “He’s a wonderful kid and a wonderful leader, he just had a disappointing weekend. He hurt his knee a little bit in the tournament, but he was beat in the match before he did. He’s a champion, but it just didn’t happen for him this weekend.”

The Illini do not want to look at the tournament as that big of a disappointment, and the team feels they have accomplished a lot.

“We did some great things this year,” Johnson said. “We won the Big Ten, and I think we can look back and be proud of what we accomplished.”