Illini fail to hit stride in Big Ten competition

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By Majesh Abraham

The Illini got a taste of the Big Ten competition this weekend, and it was a bitter taste that they received.

The Illini finished sixth, the first time ever that an Illinois team placed out of the top-five as a team in Las Vegas. All-American seniors Alex Tirapelle and Pete Friedl both went to their individual finals, only to lose to Big Ten competition.

“We were disappointed with our performance,” said head coach Mark Johnson. “It’s a long season, and it’s only December. Friedl and Tirapelle both lost to good guys, and losses are just part of the sport, and you’ve got to take some good out of that.”

Tirapelle, the No. 1 seed and the No. 1-ranked wrestler at 157 pounds going into the match, took on No. 20 in the nation and No. 6-seed Steve Luke of Michigan.

Tirapelle scored an early lead with an escape in the second period, but Luke tied him with an escape in the third period to send it to overtime.

Both wrestlers scored escapes in the third and fourth overtimes to even the score at 3-3. But Luke got the decisive point because of his four second advantage in riding time, and won the match 4-3 on the way to help Michigan win the tournament by a wide margin.

“I’m bummed that I lost,” Tirapelle said. “I want to win every time I step out on the mat, but you take the loss as what it’s for. It’s an early season tournament, and he’s from Michigan, so I’ll see him many more times, and I’ll be looking forward to those matches.”

Friedl, No. 3 in the nation and also the No. 1 seed, took on No. 4 and No. 2-seed Ben Wissel of Purdue. Wissel established a firm grip on the match when he scored a takedown in the first and second period. Friedl managed two escapes but lost the match, 6-2.

Overall, the Illini placed six wrestlers, including redshirt-freshman Mike Poeta who placed fifth at 165 pounds. Junior Donny Reynolds placed sixth at 174 pounds, senior Tyrone Byrd placed seventh at 194 pounds and junior Matt Weight placed eighth at heavyweight.

“We know we’re capable of better performances,” Tirapelle said. “We left some guys at home that are substantial point scorers, but the guys you want to take there, you want them to reach their full potential. But you can’t peak for the entire season, you’ve got to build your way up. We’ve got a ways to go, but I feel that we’re headed in the right direction.”

Freshmen show potential at Northern Iowa Open

While the rest of the team was in Las Vegas, 15 Illini wrestlers participated in the Northern Iowa Open this past weekend. Two freshmen, heavyweight Ben Zulauf and 165- lb Mark Lukaszewski both placed in the top-six of the tournament in their respective weight classes.

Zulauf won six-straight matches in the consolation bracket after losing in the second round to take home fifth place. One of those wins was over fellow freshman teammate, John Wise, 3-1.

Lukaszewski lost in the first match of the tournament, but won four-straight matches to earn a place in the fifth-place bout. He lost to Minnesota’s Andy Pickar, 6-4, to place sixth overall.

“It’s a tournament we send our backups to get some experience,” Johnson said. “Those two both did a good job, and we just try to get guys matches during the year to get our young guys some confidence going into the rest of the season.”