Stage set for classic match

Stage set for classic match

By Majesh Abraham

Usually, seeing two of the top teams in the nation facing off would be reason enough to get excited about seeing No. 3 Illinois wrestle at home. But like Illinois, the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines are undefeated, which sets the stage for a classic.

“I’m excited about it, and really looking forward to the competition, and it’s going to be a great collegiate wrestling match between two of the best teams in the country,” said Illini head coach Mark Johnson.

If that wasn’t challenging enough, the No. 3 Illini (8-0, 3-0) follow it up with a road meet against another top-25 team, No. 16 Northwestern on Sunday. This is a crucial conference weekend for the Illini, especially if they expect to challenge No. 1 Minnesota for the conference title.

Last year, when the Wolverines and the Illini squared off, it ended in the rarest of results, a tie, 17-17. It was the first tie in the history of both teams, and the Illini will be looking to improve the series record, which is currently 23-38-1 in favor of Michigan.

This year’s version could be just as exciting, with 14 ranked wrestlers set to dual, including two No. 1 seeds. For the Illini’s No. 1 seed, senior All-American Alex Tirapelle (157 lbs), it is an opportunity to avenge his only loss of the season – No. 11 freshman Steve Luke, who beat him 4-3 at Las Vegas.

“There’s a little bit of the revenge factor going on,” Tirapelle said. “I’m looking forward to get another shot at him at home against a good crowd, and having a good match. I let him kill the time on me last time, I have to keep the pace of the match going, make him wrestle and not hang on as much.”

The Illini’s Mike Poeta, No. 8 at 165 pounds, will have his hands full with No. 1 Ryan Churella (18-0), an All-American, fifth-year senior, and reigning Big Ten champion. Poeta, a redshirt freshman, is 19-3 on the season, and undefeated (3-0) in the Big Ten.

“I’m dealing with this match in the same way as I deal with any other match, and I’m going to prepare the same way.” Poeta said. “I’m not going to take a back seat out there just because he is No.1 in the country, I’m going out there to win.”

The Wolverines (11-2, 3-0) have eight ranked wrestlers on their squad, including a pair of brothers like the Illini, sophomore Josh Churella, younger brother of Ryan, who is No. 4 at 141 lbs. He will take on junior All-American Cassio Pero in what figures to be another great dual.

The Illini won’t have much time to recover from Friday night’s meet, as they head to Rolling Meadows, Ill. to take on the Wildcats, one of the nine Big Teams ranked in the top-25. The Wildcats’ lineup features seven ranked wrestlers, including sophomore Jake Herbert, who is No. 2 in the nation at 174 lbs.

“We’re used to the Friday-Sunday turnaround, and we really won’t talk about Northwestern after Friday night,” Johnson said. “Northwestern might not be as highly ranked as Michigan, but we’re worried about everybody. When you’re in the Big Ten conference, you take it one match at a time.”

The Illini, however, have won 10 straight dual meets against the Wildcats, and are 37-29-2 against Northwestern all-time. The meet was originally scheduled to be in Evanston, Ill. at 7 pm, but was shifted to Rolling Meadows to provide a neutral crowd, and 1 pm in lieu of the Super Bowl. The Illini will take on Michigan at Huff Hall on Friday night at 7 p.m.

“We’re pretty confident, we’re capable of running away with this duel [against Michigan]”, Poeta said. “I don’t think there is any added pressure on us, we’re all going to go out there with the same mind frame, and that is to win.”