Illini wrestlers return to Huff Hall for home opener

By Jay Lee

After zig-zagging across the nation to begin its season, the Illinois wrestling team heads to Huff Hall for its home opener Saturday.

Following trips to North Carolina, Missouri and Nevada, the No. 8 Illini will host a triangle meet against McKendree and Findlay. Last season, the Illini extended their home-opener winning streak to 20 in defeating McKendree, 31-9, and Findlay, 30-10.

“It isn’t the competition that we’ll see when we hit Big Ten season,” head coach Mark Johnson said. “But we know it’s a great opportunity to stay at home instead of having to travel for matches.”

After competing with what Johnson described as a “partial team” so far this season, the Illini will welcome back starters John Dergo, John Wise and Roger Smith-Bergsrud. Dergo, who has sat out the last month with a leg injury, will make his season debut, while Wise and Smith-Bergsrud also return after both sat out last weekend’s Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational.

The team will still be without senior Mike Poeta, who is nursing a leg injury of his own. The two-time All American is currently the No. 1 wrestler in the 157-pound class – a ranking he has held for 23 weeks in his career.

“It’s the middle of December, and that’s when you need to start having your team together,” Johnson said. “We’re still going to need some time, but everybody is starting to get healthy.”

Saturday will also be the Huff Hall debuts for freshman starters B.J. Futrell and Jordan Blanton. Both have contributed strong performances early in the season, with Futrell standing at 12-3 and Blanton at 10-3.

“It’ll be really exciting to go out there at Huff Hall for the first time. I can’t wait,” Blanton said. “Some friends and family from home are coming in to watch, and we’re anticipating some good competition.”

The triangle meet will be a final tune up for the team before the Illini grapplers head to the Midlands Invitational at the end of the month and kick off the Big Ten season in mid-January.

“We have a tough stretch coming up,” Johnson said. “This week is important for us to stay focused and continue to get better for the rest of the season.”

Illini injury report

Returning

John Dergo (leg) – 174 lb. junior

Dergo has yet to compete this year and was ranked in the NWCA/Intermat top 20 all of last season, rising as high as No. 11.

No. 6 John Wise (undisclosed) – HWT senior

The only blemish on Wise’s 5-1 season record came courtesy of No. 4 Mark Ellis of Missouri.

No. 11 Roger Smith-Bergsrud (personal) – 165 lb. senior

The Missouri Open (Nov. 23) featured Smith-Bergsrud’s first collegiate tournament victory.

Out

No. 1 Mike Poeta (leg) – 157 lb. senior

The top spot in the country still belongs to Poeta, who has not competed yet this season.