Kennedy defeats old friend at wrestling’s All-Star Classic

By Jay Lee

With an upset of Minnesota’s No. 2 Jayson Ness at last Monday’s National Wrestling Coaches Association’s All-Star Classic, junior Jimmy Kennedy turned heads among collegiate wrestling’s elite.

“(Kennedy) has come a long way and a lot of people have come to know about him,” Illinois head coach Mark Johnson said. “But he went out among a room full of the best and of National Champions and he made a name for himself.”

Kennedy has two good friends to thank for what he called a “very cool experience.”

While the rest of the team was competing at the Missouri Open in Columbia, Mo., Kennedy was on slate to travel alone to Columbus, Ohio, for the All-Star Classic. Not wanting to see his good friend and teammate travel alone, senior Mike Poeta volunteered to accompany Kennedy, who admitted he had dreaded the idea of traveling by himself.

“I wrestled late in the evening, so I was bored out of my mind. I must have watched eight straight hours of ESPN,” Kennedy said. “If Mike wasn’t there with me, I don’t know what I would have done. It made everything that much more enjoyable.”

Poeta, the two-time All-American who defeated No. 2 Craig Henning of Wisconsin at last year’s All-Star Classic, had to turn down an invitation to compete at this year’s Classic due to a leg injury.

Johnson was impressed by Poeta’s gesture, but not necessarily surprised.

“I think that’s Mike Poeta for you,” Johnson said. “He’s a great leader and the ultimate teammate, and there is no one that loves Illinois more than him, and I think this is the ultimate example. The fact that he would put up his own money to just be there for his teammate tells you something. And you know that it was tugging at him that he couldn’t even compete.”

The other close friend of Kennedy’s who made this year’s All-Star Classic much more memorable was his opponent, Jayson Ness.

Both growing up in the Midwest, the two have been familiar with one another since they were in grade school.

“We started off by wrestling each other at national tournaments, and then we got to know each other pretty well,” Kennedy said. “He actually came to my house from Minnesota once so we could go to a camp together, and then later on his family invited my family up there. It was pretty cool going up against him again.”

This marks the first time the two have squared off at the collegiate level, as Ness recently made the move up from the 125-pound weight class to Kennedy’s 133 class. Kennedy defeated his long-time friend with a 7-5 score after posting two quick takedowns early on, and then finished by delivering a last minute escape.

Kennedy’s teammates were not as successful at the Missouri Open, as senior John Wise and sophomore Ryan Prater both lost in the last 20 seconds of their respective semifinal matches, making Roger Smith-Bergsrud the only Illini to take home an individual title.

Johnson wasn’t dismayed with the lack of individual titles, pointing to the narrow losses of Wise and Prater and the absence of Kennedy, Poeta and junior John Dergo.

“I can’t say it was a bad performance overall,” Johnson said. “Once we head into January and once we start getting healthy and have these young guys getting better and better, we’re going to be a very good team.”