Team prepared to defend past title

By Majesh Abraham

For the first time in 52 years, the No. 6 Illini will have the opportunity to defend a Big Ten Tournament championship.

Last year, the Illini were able to break a 52-year drought at the Big Ten Tournament as all nine wrestlers placed in the top six of their individual classes.

It was a team performance for the ages that automatically qualified all nine wrestlers for the NCAA tournament and the team to tie the tournament record for most points at 130.

“It was a solid performance, and we probably need to have a better performance this year than last year to win,” head coach Mark Johnson said.

“We don’t really talk about what we did last year. There is hype that comes along in the beginning that comes with being defending champions, but you have to look past that.”

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Last year, the Illini finished with four finalists and two champions, then-juniors Alex Tirapelle and Pete Friedl. Tirapelle, a senior All-American, is a No.1 seed for the second year in a row and will be favored to repeat as he is the No.1-ranked wrestler at 157 pounds.

Senior Tyrone Byrd (197 lbs) also goes in as a No.1 seed ranked eighth in the country at 197 pounds. He finished fifth last year.

“The Big Ten is traditionally one of the toughest conferences in the country and it’s going to be a tough couple days,” Freidl said.

“You’re not going to find too many guys that are going to waltz right through it. I’m going to give it my all and try to qualify for nationals, and if the gods shine down upon me and give me a title, I’ll take it.”

Senior All-American Kyle Ott (125 lbs), a No.2 seed, will be looking to make up for his loss in the finals last year as he goes into the championships ranked eighth in the country.

Junior All-American Cassio Pero (141lbs) will be looking to improve on his third-place finish, along with junior Donny Reynolds (165 lbs) who finished sixth, respectively.

This year the Illini will be without two No.1 seeds from last year: Mark Jayne and Brian Glynn, who were part of the record four No.1 seeds that the Illini had along with Tirapelle and Friedl.

But the Illini still have plenty of experience on the team which will make them one of the favorites for the tournament as they look to gather momentum before heading into the NCAA championships.

“If you come in and you’ve got a lot of experience, it really helps you along,” Friedl said.

“The more matches you can get in before this tournament the better. You know the ropes, and I think that will help us at the end.”

These will be the final official Big Ten matches for the Illini’s outstanding senior class, which includes Ott, Tirapelle, Friedl, Byrd and Matt Weight (197 lbs).

“It was a good ride,” Friedl said. “I’m going to miss it, because it’s what I’ve grown up doing, but making weight and wrestling tough every week are things I’m not going to miss.”

It will be a tough act to follow, but with the team fully healthy the Illini are looking to establish themselves as national championship contenders.

“Right now, every guy is focused on one match at a time,” Johnson said. “We look at this tournament as a qualifying tournament also, where if you can’t win the tournament you at least try to qualify for the nationals. The conference is a little stronger, but there’s no question that we can win this tournament if we all wrestle well.”