Illini wrestler’s hot streak continues at Vegas Invitational

By Jay Lee

Las Vegas is known as the City of Second Chances, and that’s exactly what it was for No. 7-ranked Illinois’ Jimmy Kennedy this weekend.

After failing to advance at last year’s Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational because of an illness, Kennedy breezed through the 133-pound bracket en route to his first Invitational title.

“It was disappointing last year when I struggled with the sickness and some injuries. I just couldn’t get into a groove,” Kennedy said. “Coming in healthy this year, I knew I could go on a run.”

Kennedy’s path to the tournament’s championship was highlighted by an early pin of Wisconsin’s Tom Kellher in the first round, as well as a 17-2 technical fall against Adams State’s Arsenia Barksdale in the second round.

“Coming in, it was my intention to dominate every match,” Kennedy said. “Early on, I got through the first few matches pretty easily, and then everything else just started going my way.”

The competition of Kennedy’s 133-pound class was among the toughest at the Invitational, with five of the top 10 nationally ranked wrestlers competing. However, No. 3-ranked Kennedy’s only close match was in the championship, where he defeated Boise State’s Andrew Hochstrasser, 6-4. Kennedy was in control of the title match the entire time, scoring all six of his points with three early takedowns. The Ingleside, Ill., native now stands at 9-0 on the season.

Kennedy’s title caps a two-week period in which he was named the Big Ten’s Wrestler of the Week after a defeat of Minnesota’s No. 2 Jayson Ness at the NWCA All-Star Classic on Nov. 24.

“It’s good to keep (the success) going,” Kennedy said. “It helps me know that everything I’m doing and working on is taking me on the right path.”

Kennedy was only one of three Illini wrestlers to place at the tournament, with Jordan Blanton finishing seventh at 184 and Ryan Prater finishing eighth at 141. The Illini as a team finished in a tie with Wisconsin for 13th place with a final score of 64.5.

Head coach Mark Johnson’s squad competed without starters Mike Poeta, John Dergo and Roger Bergsrud-Smith, but Johnson still stressed the need for improvement.

“We’re in uncharted territory right now, in the fact, that we’re competing right now with a partial team,” Johnson said. “But we have some guys struggling a little bit right now, and these guys are seniors that we have a lot of expectations for.”

Seniors Troy Tirapelle and Patrick Bond were eliminated early on, and both lost their consolation matches as well.

For the true freshman Blanton, who was competing in his first Vegas Invitational, the trip was a learning experience.

“In my two losses, I outwrestled the guys for six minutes, but it’s a seven-minute match,” Blanton said. “I need to learn time management, and it’ll be important to wrestle smarter. It’s the first week of December, so no one is where they want to be.”

Next up for the team will be the home opener on Saturday, when it hosts a triangle meet against Findlay and McKendree. Johnson expects Dergo and Bergsrud-Smith to be back in the lineup.

“Hopefully we can take care of business at home, and then study for finals,” Johnson said. “We have a long, long way to go. But they are close, and that’s what’s encouraging.”