Title dream falls short for Poeta

By Mike Theodore

Illinois sophomore Mike Poeta spent two months as the nation’s top-ranked wrestler in the 157-pound weight class, but last weekend his drive to become the eighth Illini national champion came up short.

The fifth-seeded Poeta lost by decision 4-0 in the semifinals to Iowa State’s top-seeded Travis Paulson at the NCAA Championships in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Poeta previously defeated Paulson 9-8 at the Midlands Championships on Dec. 29. The win clinched Poeta’s first-place finish at the Midlands and vaulted him to the top spot in the rankings.

“Everyone is so good, you can’t (project based on)a win early in the year that you’ll beat them again,” Poeta said.

After the loss, Poeta continued to wrestle in the consolation bracket. He earned All-American honors and defeated Hofstra’s James Strouse in the third-place match to finish the season an impressive 26-2.

“My coaches told me to gut it out (after the loss),” Poeta said. “I would rather have 3rd than 4th, 5th, 6th or not place at all.”

The third-place match was decided in the second overtime period when Poeta escaped with seconds remaining. Hofstra protested the match, but the escape was upheld after review. Poeta became the 40th All-American in head coach Mark Johnson’s 15-year tenure.

“(Poeta) is only a sophomore and will be the cornerstone of our young team next season,” Johnson said. “Third place is only part of his road to an eventual national title.”

Seven other Illini wrestlers competed, but none could match Poeta’s success.

Illinois finished 19th in the overall team standings, behind eight other Big Ten teams, including the national champion, Minnesota.

The Gophers finished the season as Big Ten champions, Big Ten Tournament champions and national champions. They crowned one individual national champion, heavyweight Cole Konrad. It was the grappler’s second national championship in as many years and his 76th consecutive win.

The Big Ten finished with eight teams in the top 20 and had a total of three individual champions.

Illinois true-freshman Jimmy Kennedy (133) and sophomore Roger Smith-Bergsrud (165) barely missed capturing All-American honors. Both grapplers lost in the fourth round of the wrestleback bracket and were unable to finish in the top eight to merit the honor.

The Championships marked the final collegiate competition for the Illini’s 2005 All-American Cassio Pero. The 141-pound senior lost his second-round match and did not respond in the wrestlebacks, falling 13-4 in the consolation second round. He was 23-10 this year.