Wrestling: Illinois aims to rebound against Iowa, MSU

By Troy Murray

The Illinois wrestling team is coming off two consecutive Big Ten losses for the first time since the 2002-03 season, but head coach Mark Johnson wore his 2005 Big Ten Championship shirt to practice on Tuesday to remind the team of what they are capable of accomplishing.

“I’m disappointed to lose any match,” Johnson said. “The key, though, is how you respond. We’re responding well in practice. The guys are fine. I told them that we’re the Big Ten champs. Let’s act and wrestle like that.”

Johnson’s tactic seemed to work.

“Even though we lost twice this past weekend, I think we’re still the best team out there,” redshirt freshman Mike Poeta (149 lbs) said. “We’re just going to put those in the past, go on with our season and try to win everything from here on out.”

And it was not just Poeta who it seemed to have a resounding effect upon.

“Illinois has progressively been getting better and better over the past few years,” junior Cassio Pero (141 lbs) said. “We’re the best team out there right now. We’ll just have to go back to the drawing board to prove it.”

No. 6 Illinois, who lost in dramatic fashion to No. 3 Michigan and No. 13 Northwestern, looks to get back on track against No. 9 Iowa (9-6, 3-3) on Friday and No. 18 Michigan State (4-5, 2-2) on Sunday.

Illinois and Iowa are both in very similar situations. Iowa is another team who is looking for blood, coming off two upset losses to the Spartans and a loss to No. 8 Penn State last weekend.

“I think they know where they’re at just as much as we do,” Johnson said. “It’s time to rebound. We’re getting close to the end of the year. Dual meets are dual meets and they’re a tune up for the national tournament, but they’re still important.”

Johnson started off his coaching career in Iowa City as a wrestling graduate assistant and assistant coach from 1978-1990, making the meet even more important.

“I spent a lot of time (at Iowa),” Johnson said. “There’s some meaning there. I kind of learned how to coach there, but it’d be great to get going again against (the Hawkeyes).”

A rivalry will be rekindled when senior All-American Alex Tirapelle goes up against Iowa senior Joe Johnston in the 157 lb. matchup. Johnston beat Tirapelle last year in the NCAA tournament, knocking him out of contention for the national title, but Tirapelle beat Johnston in the All-Star meet earlier this year.

“They’ve had some great matches,” Johnson said. “I think Alex is up on him by a little bit, but it’s a classic matchup and that’ll be a key match for both schools.”

Illinois will come back home to face the Spartans on Sunday. Michigan State is staying steady at .500 in conference play, but is still ranked, something that Johnson said was an indicator of where the Big Ten is at in wrestling.

“Everyone knows you can have a record like that in the Big Ten and still be an outstanding team,” Johnson said. “That’s what happens in the Big Ten conference. Our conference is just so loaded. You can’t take anyone for granted.”