Wrestling eager for season start despite ranking

Wrestling eager for season start despite ranking

By Mike Theodore

With the start of the season approaching, the Illini wrestling team finds itself in an unfamiliar position – outside the top 10 in national preseason rankings.

It is the first time in several seasons that RevWrestling.com has not included the Illini in the preseason top 10.

The Web site ranked the Illini 18th in the nation, behind eight other Big Ten teams, including the top-ranked Minnesota Gophers and fifth-ranked Michigan Wolverines, the defending Big Ten Champions.

But Illini Head Coach Mark Johnson, who starts his 15th year as head coach, said he doesn’t put too much stock in the rankings, citing a trend to rely heavily on returning points. He is more interested in stressing the importance of team discipline.

“This team is all about discipline,” Johnson said. “It’s been hard work.”

“We have something to prove,” sophomore Mike Poeta (157) said.

RevWrestling.com also ranked five Illini wrestlers in the national top-20 in their respective weight classes. Ranked third in his weight class, Poeta is the highest-ranked Illini. Johnson said Poeta will return to wrestle in his natural weight class after wrestling last year at 165. Poeta finished third last year at the Big Ten championships after going 7-1 in the Big Ten. This season he is looking for bigger achievements.

“If I’m not the national champion it will be a disappointment,” Poeta said.

Despite the returning talent, Johnson described this season as a rebuilding year because of the large freshman class. All 11 players come from Illinois high schools, including John Dergo, who won back-to-back state championships his junior and senior years at Morris High School.

“We have a lot of potential in this room,” Johnson said. “This is one of our best freshman classes.”

With the large freshman class, senior Cassio Pero (141) has emerged as a team leader. The two-time national qualifier has his sights set on a national championship.

“The ultimate, ultimate, ultimate goal is to be prepared for the national championships,” Pero said.

Illini fans can get their first look at the team Friday Nov. 3 at the Wrestle-offs, an intrasqaud scrimmage between equally weighted Illini wrestlers.

“We can find out who the competitors are and who struggles in competition,” Johnson said. “It sets the tone.”

Poeta described the Wrestle-offs as one of the toughest matches of the year because the wrestlers know the style and moves of each other.

After the Wrestle-offs, the Illini will open the season Nov. 19 at the Missouri Open and will compete in several tournaments until second semester.

The Illini will not begin their eight-game conference schedule until Jan. 19 when they open at home against preseason sixth-ranked Northwestern.

“I think were going to surprise a lot of people,” Pero said. “I’m excited for it.”