Wrestle-Offs showcase team’s talent

Wrestle-Offs showcase teams talent

By Mike Theodore

Illini fans were treated to an early glimpse at the talent of the preseason No. 18-ranked Illinois wrestling team at the Wrestle-Offs Friday night.

The intrasquad preseason event showcased 13 matches between equally-weighted wrestlers on two mats at Huff Hall.

“It kind of gives the guys an idea where they’re at with their conditioning,” head coach Mark Johnson said. “It’s very important in terms of that.”

Three of the Illini’s five returning starters competed and won their first matches of the year, including senior Cassio Pero (141), junior Gabe Flores (125) and sophomore Troy Tirapelle (149). Two returning starters, 2006 national qualifier sophomore Mike Poeta (157) and two-time national qualifier senior Donny Reynolds (174), did not wrestle due to injury. All five returning starters are ranked in RevWrestling.com’s preseason individual weight class rankings.

Flores, a 2006 national qualifier, dominated true freshman John Deneen (125) and won the match 16-2 after a technical fall in the second round, despite admitting he felt a little weak on Friday.

“I think if I keep my weight under control a little better next time and get on the mats I think I’ll be better,” Flores said.

Pero, a 2005 All-American and two-time national qualifier, defeated fellow senior Joel Karr 9-2 after leading 2-0 after the first round. Pero finished eighth at last year’s Big Ten Championships.

“I felt I kind of had a slow start out there,” Pero said. “I felt pretty good in terms of my body how I got down to weight.”

Ranked No. 11 in the preseason 149-pound weight class, Tirapelle defeated junior Dan Zeman 10-8. Last season, Tirapelle went 24-12 and finished second at the Big Ten Championships as a redshirt freshman.

The returning starters were not the only Illini to impress.

The Wrestle-Offs also provided the Illini freshmen with their first taste of collegiate matches. Two-time Illinois high school state champion, freshman John Dergo (184) scored a major decision against redshirt freshman Jake Norman, winning 11-3.

“We know John Dergo is a great athlete and he’s going to be a star for us,” Johnson said. “He was impressive.”

But Dergo isn’t satisfied with his performance.

“I don’t think I wrestled my best out there,” Dergo said. “I think I need to push myself more, but it was a fun experience.”

Another two-time Illinois high school state champion, freshman Jimmy Kennedy (133), also scored a major decision in his match against fellow freshman Matthew Lee (141). Kennedy won 11-2. As a senior in high school, Lee finished second at the Illinois state meet for West Aurora.

“(The freshmen) are real tough wrestlers in the room in practice and I knew they’d come out here and put on a good show,” Pero said. “I was impressed by the way they wrestled in front of the crowd tonight.”

The Illini will open the regular season Nov. 19 at the Missouri Open and will not wrestle at home again until Dec. 19 against Central Missouri St. and Findlay.