Wrestling splits decision on weekend



By Ryan Dixon

After dropping Friday’s dual meet at No. 6 Michigan 22-16, the No. 15 Fighting Illini wrestling team recovered Sunday at Huff Hall to upset No. 8 Penn State, 18-15.

Illinois (9-2, 1-1) surged to a 9-0 lead with decision victories from No. 19 John Wise (HWT), No. 9 Gabe Flores (125 pounds) and No. 9 Jimmy Kennedy (133). Penn State (10-5, 2-3) pulled even at 9-9 after a pin and decision over Illinois’ starting freshmen, No. 11 Ryan Prater (141) and Grant Paswall (149). But it was the Illini’s No. 1 Mike Poeta (157) who broke the tie and redeemed himself Sunday afternoon.

Poeta, who lost his undefeated season Friday to Michigan’s Jeff Marsh, defeated the No. 2 wrestler in the country, Dan Vallimont, 6-3 and gave Illinois a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

“(The win) was big,” Poeta said. “If you handle your business individually, the team’s going to take care of itself. That’s just how wrestling goes.”

Illinois didn’t look back after Poeta’s victory, including a hard-fought 6-5 decision victory by No. 17 John Dergo (174) over No. 16 Dave Erwin.

“I just had to stay confident,” Dergo said. “John Wise gets a big win, Gabe gets a big win, Jimmy gets a big win – and when you got that momentum things just start flowing.”

Sunday’s dual for the Illini was a complete turnaround from Friday’s performance. Illinois could not hold on to the 10-0 lead it amassed early Friday evening against the Wolverines.

Dergo said that they were a match away from beating Michigan, and they know they didn’t wrestle very well.

Illinois head coach Mark Johnson believed Sunday’s dual against the Nittany Lions was a must-win, and his wrestlers answered the call.

“I always take one match at a time, but I knew the pressure that would have been on had we lost this match after letting one slip away from us Friday night – that it becomes tough to come back and forth, and they responded well,” Johnson said.

Johnson believes the rebound win over Penn State will show others in the Big Ten that they will not be able to overlook his squad.

“They’re going to say ‘Illinois is a doggone good team, top to bottom,’ and we proved it today,” Johnson said.

He also said a key to winning a dual like Sunday’s was for the team to win its “swing matches” – matches between similarly ranked opponents.

The Illini did just that, as Flores, Poeta and Dergo all secured Illini victories.

“My hat’s off to Gabe Flores,” Poeta said.

“That kid’s a little animal out there. If he could just ball up the fire he has and put it in all of us, we would be the best team in the country.”

Poeta, now 23-1, bounced back from Friday’s loss both mentally and in the win column.

He said the loss put his season into perspective and that, while one never wants to lose a match, he thinks the loss will be good for his training for the rest of the year.

Illinois won’t get much of a breather after its opening weekend of Big Ten duals. The Illini host No. 13 Wisconsin Feb. 8, at 7 p.m., followed by a Sunday dual at Indiana to grapple the No. 16 Hoosiers.