Wrestling 2-0 in Big Ten play

By Mike Theodore

Before the season began, Illini wrestling head coach Mark Johnson said he doesn’t put too much stock in Top 25 polls.

This weekend his Illini wrestlers showed why.

Friday night, the No. 16-ranked Illini defeated 8th ranked Northwestern 21-13 and less than 48 hours later toppled the 13th-ranked Indiana Hoosiers 22-9.

The Illini won a combined 13 of 20 matches on the weekend to start the conference season 2-0. Gabe Flores (125) and Mike Poeta (157) won both their matches to remain undefeated on the season.

“These are two pretty good teams,” Flores said. “It’s good to get these wins out of the way and show everybody how good we can be.”

The Wildcats took the early lead when Dustin Fox, the fourth-ranked heavyweight in the nation, defeated John Wise 12-5.

Flores got the Illini back on track with a solid 9-3 win over Brandon Precin, but an unsportsmanlike conduct call on the Illini following the match subtracted a point from the Illini’s team score and left Northwestern with a 3-2 lead.

Freshman Jimmy Kennedy (133), in his first career Big Ten match, gave the Illini the lead with a 2-0 victory against Eric Metzler.

The match was scoreless into the third round until Kennedy scored a point on an escape and an additional point from riding time. Kennedy’s win was the second of six consecutive Illini wins.

The Wildcat’s Jake Herbert (184), who entered the match undefeated and nationally top-ranked, defeated freshman John Dergo 11-3. But the Wildcats wrestled without their other top-ranked and undefeated wrestler, Ryan Lang (141), because of injury. Cassio Pero easily defeated his replacement, John Kohlberg, 15-5.

“I think this team has been training hard and we stepped up to the plate,” Pero said.

The Illini once again started slowly Sunday, losing two of the first three matches, but Flores’ 4-2 victory over the Hoosiers’ 7th-ranked red-shirt freshman, Angel Escobedo, started a string of six straight Illini wins. Escobedo entered the match 24-2, but Flores controlled the match and entered the third period with a 4-0 lead. The victory improved Flores’ record to a perfect 16-0.

“Staying undefeated is probably the last thing on my mind right now,” Flores said. “I’m taking each match one by one right now.”

Following Flores’ victory, Kennedy used an escape and a reversal to score three points in the final 20 seconds of the third period to overtake 19th ranked Andrae Hernandez. The 5-4 victory was Kennedy’s second win in as many tries in his young Big Ten career and once again gave the Illini its first lead of the afternoon.

“The score 22-9 is not indicative of how close this match was with seven or eight of the matches coming down to the last 30 seconds of the match,” Johnson said.

The Illini continued their win streak with victories by Pero, Troy Tirapelle (149), Poeta and Roger Smith-Bergsrud (165). Poeta’s victory improved his record to 15-0 and was his fourth win as the nation’s top-ranked 157 pound grappler.

“Toughness was a big part of our plan today.” Johnson said. “We wanted to wrestle tough, put pressure on them and never let up. I’m pleased with how we took command of matches and how we never lost our composure.”