Illini of the Week: Mike Poeta

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Ryan Dixon

Mike Poeta is “beating the crap out of everybody.”

At least that’s how teammate Gabe Flores described Poeta’s recent dominance.

Poeta, an All-American wrestler from Highwood, Ill., secured his first Big Ten Championship, and Illinois’ first since 2005, last weekend in Minneapolis.

By emerging victorious in the 157-pound bracket at the Big Ten Championships, Poeta added another notch to his belt of wrestling achievements. Poeta’s recent title now rests side-by-side the Midlands and Las Vegas Invitational titles he attained earlier this season.

En route to his title, the top-seeded Illini defeated the No. 6 and No. 3 wrestlers in the country; he also won all four of his matches by no less than six points. In his championship match, Poeta trounced second-seeded and third-ranked Dan Vallimont of Penn State, 8-2.

But Poeta remains unsatisfied.

“They’re good achievements,” Poeta said. “You’re excited about them and you want to win them, but they’re not the goals coming into the season. When I think in my head what the goal is going into the season, it’s always the national title. They’re good achievements, but they mean nothing compared to the last one.”

Despite Poeta’s humbleness, Flores acknowledged the importance of his teammate’s accomplishment.

“Seeing Mike wrestle, winning a Big Ten Championship – it’s awesome,” Flores said. “I’m really proud of him.”

Poeta views last weekend’s success as encouraging, considering the Big Ten Championships are viewed by many to be a warm up for the NCAA Championships. Many of the grapplers who were in Poeta’s brutal Big Ten bracket in Minneapolis will be the same competitors vying for an NCAA Championship.

Poeta is currently ranked No. 2 in the country by the National Wrestling Coaches Association and is No. 3 in W.I.N. Magazine.

The junior finished the regular season 28-2 before grabbing his Big Ten title. He has a career .876 winning percentage with a 85-12 record as an Illini, placing him third all-time in winning percentage at the University.

“Mike Poeta was one of the most highly decorated wrestlers we recruited,” head coach Mark Johnson said. “Everybody expected big things, him and us, and he’s been everything we expected. He’s just one of those coach’s dreams.”

As a team leader, Poeta believes in leading with actions, rather than words.

“I’m not very vocal,” Poeta said. “I don’t say much during practice, in any kind of run or lift or workout that we do. I don’t really like people when they try and lead vocally. I think that’s kind of an easy way out. You have to lead by example, and that’s what I do.”

“He studies the sport,” Johnson said. “He’s just not going to let anybody train harder than him. He wants that edge. He wants to know that he’s in great condition.”

Poeta attributes his success to his parents’ help along the way. He started his wrestling career at the age of five after participating in a program his father started for kids. He hasn’t shown signs of slowing down, either.

Flores stressed that Poeta never takes a day off from training and it’s the extra little things his teammate does that make wrestlers into champions. His training and persistence to be the best has Poeta one step away from his final goal.

“I’ve been dreaming (of becoming a NCAA champion) my whole life,” Poeta said.

“Growing up every year you watch the NCAA finals on ESPN, and you dream that you’re going to be in it. When I started getting older and older, and I was getting closer to college, I started getting goose bumps watching because I knew that one day I was going to be there.”

After claiming his first Big Ten Championship, Poeta hopes to avenge last year’s third-place finish at the NCAA Championships by earning the top spot on the podium March 22 in St. Louis.

How would a wrestler go about derailing Illinois’ most recent Big Ten Champion?

“You have to slow me down,” Poeta said, unable to hold back a smile. “When I get stuff going, I think I’m hard to beat. I’m doing so much stuff to correct that problem so it’s going to be tough.”

Flores is equally, if not more confident in his teammate’s chances.

“He’s on fire,” Flores said. “The way he’s wrestling right now, I don’t think anybody’s going to beat him.”

Poeta’s road to a Big Ten Championship

No. 2 seed Mike Poeta plowed through the 157-pound bracket at the Big Ten Championships in Minneapolis on his way to claiming his first Big Ten title on March 8-9.

Pigtail: dec. Andrew Nadhir (NU), 10-4

Quarterfinals: maj. dec. No. 8 seed John Fulger (MSU), 15-3

Semifinals: inj. def. over No. 4 seed, #6 C.P. Schlatter (MINN)

Championships: dec. No. 2 seed, #3 Dan Vallimont (PSU), 8-2