Freshmen wrestlers rise to top

Freshmen Ryan Prater, right, and Grant Paswall, are the new additions to the University of Illinois wrestling team. Erica Magda

Freshmen Ryan Prater, right, and Grant Paswall, are the new additions to the University of Illinois wrestling team. Erica Magda

By Ryan Dixon

Ryan Prater and Grant Paswall are anything but prototypical freshmen wrestlers. If they were, the two would be redshirting this year for the Illini. Both freshmen attained their starting roles on the Illini wrestling team in different ways, but their records reflect similar winning results.

Prater is ranked 19th in the nation at 141 pounds and has posted a 17-4 record this season. The Plainfield, Ill., native planned on redshirting this year, but his call to action came a year sooner than expected.

When the team traveled to Las Vegas in late November for the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, the redshirts – Prater included – stayed behind to practice. Prater rushed to get online after a workout to track his teammates’ performances in Nevada. After seeing that Tirapelle suffered a loss in his match, Prater knew something had gone awry – ranked fifth at the time, Tirapelle was not supposed to lose.

As it turned out, Prater was right – Tirapelle sustained a dislocated shoulder in his quarterfinal match.

With Tirapelle projected to miss at least a significant part of the season, head coach Mark Johnson decided to call Prater right away.

“I got the call from coach, and as soon as he told me, I was happy and really nervous,” Prater said. “I was questioning myself, which I shouldn’t have done.”

Johnson’s call was Prater’s opportunity to start as a true freshman.

“I had to cover (my nervousness) up. I just had to tell him that I’m ready to go and work hard,” Prater said.

But Prater has proven to his coaches and teammates that he is capable of grappling at this level and is flourishing as a starting freshman.

“Whether he was or wasn’t (excited), he did a good job of fooling me,” Johnson said. “When he has stepped up to compete, he has done a terrific job of it.”

Earlier this season, Prater defeated the 13th- and 14th-ranked wrestlers in the country at the Virginia Duals to help the Illini reach the finals against then-No. 3 Oklahoma State.

“My style doesn’t really use strength,” Prater said. “That’s why I’m able to compete with guys, because I have the length.”

As for Prater’s fellow freshman, Paswall didn’t really know what to expect coming into the Illinois wrestling program.

“I wasn’t really sure if I was going to redshirt or not,” Paswall said. “I just kept the mindset to work hard because you never know what could happen.”

What did end up happening was Paswall’s insertion into the starting lineup at 149 pounds. Johnson said “the cream rose to the top,” concerning Paswall’s emergence into the starting lineup.

Paswall, of Katonah, N.Y., gained interest in coming to the University after meeting Illini assistant coach Carl Perry at the Beast of the East tournament in December 2006.

Paswall said he didn’t have an idea of where he wanted to attend school and decided to take the visit to Champaign.

Illinois ended up being the “total package” for him.

“He just emerged,” Johnson said. “He has just won (the starting spot) as of now because he’s been competing well.”

Paswall has had similar success to that of his freshman counterpart, Prater.

He started 7-0 before losing his first match and has bolstered his record to 18-4 this season.

Paswall went 4-2 in the Las Vegas Invitational, and finished one round away form placing.

He was impressive in the Wendy’s Duals, achieving two decision victories and a pin 43 seconds into his match versus Sam Walters of Liberty.

“It definitely helps having another freshman on the team,” Paswall said of Prater. “It’s nice to have someone to talk to.”

Prater mirrors Paswall’s sentiments on the benefit of having another college rookie in the starting lineup.

“It’s good to have someone your age that knows what you’re going through,” Prater said. “It’s a lot easier for me to talk to him. We usually get each other fired up before our matches.”

Johnson said redshirting the first year of wrestling is the norm for most kids that come into the sport. But it surely wasn’t the norm for Johnson and his three assistant coaches when they wrestled.

“We all wrestled as true freshmen. Me, my three assistant coaches – none of us redshirted that first year,” Johnson said.

Oh, and they all have National Championships under their belts. Coincidentally, assistant coach Perry won his title at 141 pounds – the same weight as Prater.

Mimicking the experiences of Johnson and his staff, the Illini seem to go against the grain when it comes to the freshmen experience.

“I think more and more people are using their freshmen because the conference has gotten so competitive that you better put your best lineup in there,” Johnson said.

In fact, this is the second year in a row the Illini have had two true freshmen in the starting lineup. Last year, Jimmy Kennedy and John Dergo also started for the Illini as freshmen.

Kennedy said a difficult aspect of last year was getting his confidence up and believing he can compete with the guys at this level.

But he feels Prater and Paswall are handling their first year of varsity quite well.

“I wasn’t really sure what to expect with them,” Kennedy said. “But so far, it’s been nothing but good things. They both have worked hard.”

Johnson added that Prater and Paswall have great attitudes, and their records are a testament to how pleased he is with them.

The two freshmen’s comfort level with the team is another key factor to their success.

Whether it’s going to one of Mike Poeta’s cookouts or watching games as a team, the wrestlers provide Prater and Paswall with a solid team environment.

So what’s next for these young grapplers?

With only a little over a semester out of the way, there is still work to be done and excitement to be had.

“Obviously, you can’t win an NCAA title tomorrow, but I definitely am pretty excited for the Big Ten season coming along now,” Paswall said.

The Big Ten portion of the season begins this weekend for the 8-1 Illini, but coach Johnson doesn’t seem worried about his freshmen.

“I think they have tremendous potential,” Johnson said. “I think they have helped our team – we’ll be stronger next year because of it.”

Kennedy agreed.

“So far it seems like they’re on the right path,” Kennedy said.

Prater and Paswall’s success as true freshmen is a different means to the same end.

Be it through a surprising phone call or rising to the top, the bottom line is the two men are vital pieces in the big picture that is Illini wrestling.