Tirapelle, Illini wrestlers head west for crowded Vegas Invitational

Jimmy Kennedy competes against an Iowa wrestler on Feb. 24 at Huff Hall. Kennedy and the Illini will play top-ranked wrestlers in Las Vegas. Erica Magda

Jimmy Kennedy competes against an Iowa wrestler on Feb. 24 at Huff Hall. Kennedy and the Illini will play top-ranked wrestlers in Las Vegas. Erica Magda

By Jay Lee

No one on the No. 7 Illinois wrestling squad may be more excited for the team’s trip to Las Vegas this weekend than senior Troy Tirapelle.

“Yeah, it’ll be nice to get away from the snow,” Tirapelle said. “Some warm weather will be nice.”

Tirapelle and his teammates will escape the horror that is winter in central Illinois for the 27th annual Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, which runs from Friday to Saturday. And even beyond the warm weather, a family reunion awaits in Nevada for Tirapelle.

Tirapelle will have the opportunity to compete in front of his parents and aunts and uncles, who will take the short trip from his hometown of Clovis, Calif., to Las Vegas to watch him compete. University of California, Davis will also compete in the tournament, a program that hired Tirapelle’s older brother Alex as an assistant coach.

The Tirapelles may hail from the West Coast, but orange and blue runs thick in the family’s blood – a Tirapelle has been wrestling for the team since 1998.

Tirapelle’s older brothers, Alex and Adam, became two of the most storied Illini grapplers in program history during their time in Champaign. Alex, the oldest of the trio, holds the school’s all-time record for wins and ranks second in career winning percentage. Adam is right behind with the second most wins and holds the career pins record.

The youngest of the three, Troy came to Illinois with a load of expectations placed on his shoulders. As a freshman, Tirapelle led the team in pins with seven, and qualified for nationals after placing second in the Big Ten Championships.

After a disappointing sophomore season, Tirapelle suffered a severe shoulder injury in a third round loss to Michigan’s Kellen Russell at last year’s Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational.

The injury required season-ending surgery, making his return to Las Vegas for his final invitational all the more significant.

“It’ll be taking another step forward after the injury, I guess you can say it’s like going back to ground zero,” Tirapelle said.

“My family has been looking forward to this event for years; they’ve really loved taking the drive to watch me and my brothers compete there.”

Even after sitting out most of last season, Tirapelle has already made his way up the program’s all-time rankings. After pinning two opponents at the Missouri Open on Nov. 23, Tirapelle’s 20 pins puts him at seventh all-time, needing only one more to tie Karl Roesler and Nate Patrick for fifth. Between the three of them, the Tirapelle brothers hold 307 wins and 67 pins.

“Troy himself is a tremendous wrestler,” Illinois head coach Mark Johnson said. “Him and his brothers have given everything to this program.”

Johnson will be counting on a strong showing from Tirapelle in one of the most competitive open tournaments of the season.

The Invitational will host 49 different programs, including six top-10 teams.

The highest-ranked Illini competing will be No. 3 Jimmy Kennedy in the 133-pound class, who was named the Big Ten Wrestler of the Week after defeating No. 2 Jayson Ness of Minnesota at the NWCA All-Star Classic on Nov. 24. Kennedy will take on a tough field at the Invitational, with five of the top 10 ranked wrestlers in the 133 class expected to be present.

“Every year we’re going to go out there and expect to go into deep brackets,” Kennedy said. “It gives us a chance to work on stuff out there against the best.”

The Illini will head into the Invitational shorthanded, with the team expected to compete without starters Mike Poeta, John Dergo, and Roger Smith-Bergsrud.

Poeta and Dergo, both nursing leg injuries, were instrumental in the team’s sixth-place finish last year. Poeta finished in first place and took home the award for the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler, while Dergo finished sixth. Smith-Bergsrud, who was the only Illini to win an individual title at the Missouri Open this season, will not be with the team due to personal reasons.

“We’re heading in there with a lot of holes as a team,” Johnson said. “It’ll be more for the guys as individuals to go up against a lot of ranked guys.”

With the strong field of competition and the absence of key starters, Johnson’s squad won’t have much time to think about anything other than wrestling.

“The guys won’t be able to see many of the lights,” Johnson said with a laugh.