Wrestlers grapple with upcoming match to continue conference winning streak

By Ryan Dixon

The heart of the Big Ten dual season is upon the No. 8 Fighting Illini wrestling team, as head coach Mark Johnson’s grapplers travel to No. 4 Minnesota and No. 12 Northwestern this weekend.

Illinois (11-2, 3-1 Big Ten) will start by looking to extend its conference win streak to four as it heads into Williams Arena to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers at 7 p.m. Friday. Both Minnesota (14-5, 4-1) and the Illini are coming off two Big Ten dual victories last weekend. Johnson’s squads haven’t had much success against the Gophers over his tenure, posting a 2-11 mark.

Johnson has something this year, though, that he’s never had before – six wrestlers with at least 20 victories after only four Big Ten duals.

“I think everybody knows we’re a pretty solid team,” Johnson said.

The team’s freshmen, Ryan Prater and Grant Paswall, are also on the brink of reaching 20 victories, sitting at 19-6 and 19-7, respectively.

Johnson also said he thinks every match this weekend will be an important one because each team has great individual wrestlers.

“I don’t look at one (match) – I look at 10 before I go in,” Johnson said.

Friday’s action will be littered with interesting matchups featuring highly ranked grapplers. No. 9 Gabe Flores (125 pounds) will face a tough challenge in Minnesota’s No. 1 Jayson Ness, who is undefeated this season. No. 2 Mike Poeta will be tested once again this weekend, this time by the Gophers’ No. 7 C.P. Schlatter at 157 pounds. Both Poeta and Schlatter have only two losses on their records, and Poeta went 2-1 against Schlatter last season, with each match decided by one point.

After Friday’s dual the Illini won’t get much of a breather when they arrive in Evanston, Ill., on Sunday. Northwestern (6-7, 1-3) will throw six top-20 wrestlers at Illinois, four of which are in the top five in their respective weight classes.

No. 15 John Wise (HWT) will wrestle the No. 1 heavyweight in the country in Northwestern’s Dustin Fox. Another highly touted match pins the Illini’s No. 11 Patrick Bond (197) up against No. 2 Mike Tamillow.

Bond has been on fire lately, winning 13 of his last 14 matches, including an upset of the No. 4 wrestler in the country in last Friday’s dual with Wisconsin.

“My mindset has changed as far as not thinking about winning and losing,” Bond said. “Just going out there and competing the entire seven minutes has really changed the outcome of all my matches.”

From a team standpoint, the Illini hope they can use this weekend to prove how good they really are.

“If we keep on the pace we’re on now come March, we definitely should be peaking,” Bond said.

But Illinois must first get through these two away duals, which doesn’t bother Johnson.

“We’re used to being on the road,” Johnson said. “It’s part of the business.”

Sunday’s dual might feel surprisingly like Huff Hall.

“We’ll have as many if not more people in Northwestern so that really doesn’t affect us,” Johnson said.