No. 2 Illini looking for elusive national title

By Majesh Abraham

It’s like a sundae without a cherry on top. The sundae still tastes good, but it feels like there’s something missing.

That is the current state of Illini wrestling. The No. 2 Illini have established themselves as one of the elite wrestling programs in the nation, but are striving for the national championship that will earn them a permanent spot in wrestling lore.

“I don’t think we’ll be satisfied with second place; individually and teamwise, we want to win the national championship,” said redshirt-freshman Mike Poeta. “We’re definitely in a good position right now, and I think we have a great chance to win it all this season.”

The program has achieved new heights under head coach Mark Johnson. In his 13 years, the team has finished in the top-10 in the nation nine times, and finished in the top-12 eleven times. Johnson has coached 38 All-Americans and seven National Champions in those years.

Last season was the most successful to date, as the Illini won their second-straight Big Ten regular season title, and their first Big Ten Tournament title since 1952. The team went undefeated in conference play (7-0-1) en route to a record breaking season in which they went 16-1-1. The 16 wins broke the previous school record of 14 and was the ninth team under Johnson to finish with 12 wins or more.

“We don’t talk about last year, we just talk about improving and performing this year,” Johnson said. “Each guy’s got their own battle to worry about, and everybody’s got to just take care of their own business.”

Last year, the team started the year ranked No. 4, but went into the NCAA Championships ranked No. 2. Their hopes of becoming national champions were stronger than ever. However, they placed sixth, and pushing back their hopes another year.

This year the team boasts four All-Americans, including seniors Alex Tirapelle, first in the nation in his weight class (157), and Pete Friedl (184), third in the nation for his weight class.

Senior All-American Kyle Ott is coming off two straight final’s appearances in the NCAA Championships at 125 pounds. Junior All-American Cassio Pero is coming off a seventh-place finish at the NCAA’s at 141 pounds, and a season where he recorded six upset wins.

Illinois also returns six NCAA qualifiers and have the potential to place many more this year.

“The National Championship is what we hope for, and that’s what we work for,” Johnson said. “Oklahoma State is returning four national champions out of 10 weight classes, which is unheard of, so they are obviously the prohibitive favorites. We’ve got to chip away and just hope that things fall our way, when the chips are on the line.”