Pins abound for wrestlers as Illini dominate opener

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Jay Lee

A combination of depth and domination was on display Saturday courtesy of the No. 9 Illinois wrestling team, which swept its three dual matches in Chapel Hill, N.C., at the annual ACC/Big Ten Clash.

The Illini’s season-opening performance was at the highlight of the Big Ten’s dominance at the meet.

Squads from Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin combined to win eight of the nine matches, solidifying the conference’s claim as the nation’s toughest. The Illini defeated North Carolina State 40-7, No. 21 Virginia 39-7 and North Carolina 26-9.

“We went in knowing that the ACC wasn’t at the top when it comes to wrestling caliber, but it’s always important to always go out and compete and to never overlook an opponent,” Illini heavyweight John Wise said.

“Everyone did a great job going out and competing.”

Wise, a senior, led the charge for the Illini as he took a combined 2:49 to pin his first two opponents and later defeated North Carolina’s No. 13 Justin Dobles 3-2 in his final match.

Wise at first wasn’t able to wrestle due to an injury, but head coach Mark Johnson decided to allow him to wrestle moments before his first match.

Wise’s two pins contributed to the six pins totaled by the Illini. Last year, the team posted 29 pins on the season.

With two of the team’s top wrestlers, senior Mike Poeta and junior John Dergo, watching from the sidelines with leg injuries, Johnson said that Saturday’s performance was an indicator of the team’s considerable depth.

“Especially with two of our studs out, we needed the guys to go out there and fight in every match,” Johnson said. “It was a great overall performance from everyone.”

Another two pins came from true freshman Jordan Blanton, who made his college debut with fellow freshman B.J. Futrell.

“The level of competition is so much higher than anything you would see in high school, it was a great introduction to college wrestling,” Blanton said.

“Going up against some of the best wrestlers in the country, I’m just excited to get these matches under my belt, and I’m anxious to go out and keep competing.”

Both freshmen impressed Johnson with their respective 3-0 debuts.

“I don’t want to say that it’s scary for them, but to throw them out against this level of competition, they have a lot to take in and a lot to react to,” Johnson said.

“They didn’t just handle it, they went out and dominated.”

The Illini’s early schedule will continue to feature tough competition prior to the start of the Big Ten season in January, as the team heads to Columbia, Mo., this Sunday for the Missouri Open before heading to Las Vegas, Nev., for the Cliff Keen Invitational.

“This is what it’s all about,” Blanton said about the upcoming schedule. “This is why you wrestle. We’re excited to go out and battle.”