Poeta’s return positive sign for healing Illini wrestling

Brennan Caughron The Daily Illini Illinois Grant Paswall wrestles Findlays Michael Lybarger on Saturday Dec. 13, 2008 at Huff Hall. Paswall won the match.

Brennan Caughron The Daily Illini Illinois’ Grant Paswall wrestles Findlay’s Michael Lybarger on Saturday Dec. 13, 2008 at Huff Hall. Paswall won the match.

By Jay Lee

It’s easy to imagine what New Year’s resolution Illinois head coach Mark Johnson’s made for his No. 7 wrestling team.

“We need to get and stay healthy,” Johnson said.

Heading into 2009, Johnson and his squad may have finally shaken the injury bug that pestered them for the last half of 2008. Nearly half the Illini starting lineup was sidelined at some point with an injury, including two-time All-American Mike Poeta.

Poeta made his season debut from an offseason knee surgery when the Illini took a road trip out east on Jan. 9 to kick off the new calendar year. With Johnson fielding a nearly full-strength lineup for the first time this season, Poeta’s 20-4 technical fall over West Virginia’s Ryan Goodman led the way to a 26-19 Illini victory over the Mountaineers. Poeta repeated with a 17-5 major decision the following night against No. 25 Pittsburgh, and the Illini cruised to a 26-10 triumph.

Junior Patrick Bond and senior John Wise also posted strong performances on the road trip after disappointing showings in December. Bond was swept in his two matches at the Illini’s home opener against McKendree and Findlay on Dec. 13, and both fell early in the Midlands Championship on Dec. 29.

“We have older guys that were NCAA qualifiers last year that are struggling right now,” Johnson said of Bond and Wise in December.

Bond posted back-to-back wins in dual matches for the first time this season, while Wise upset Pittsburgh’s Zach Sheaffer, who is ranked fourth nationally.

“Tonight was probably the best we’ve wrestled all year,” Johnson said in a press release after the Pittsburgh win. “It was just a great team performance and John Wise’s win over one of the top guys in the nation topped it all off.”

Illinois may have shaken some early injuries and struggles, but the team’s depth and leadership took a hit when fifth-year senior Troy Tirapelle had a likely season-ending surgery after re-injuring his shoulder at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational on Dec. 5. Tirapelle originally injured the shoulder at last year’s Invitational.

“We’ll have to see how bad it is (after the surgery) and go from there,” Johnson said. “We don’t really know anything with him right now.”

The Illini wrestlers have been off since the Jan. 10 dual match at Pittsburgh and will return on Jan. 25 when they travel to Iowa to take on the top-ranked Hawkeyes to kick off the Big Ten season.

Of the eight Big Ten teams that Illinois will face, six of them are ranked in the Top 25, including No. 1 Iowa and No. 5 Ohio State.

“We’ve been there, we know the Big Ten season is a grind,” junior John Dergo said. “There are no such things as breaks in our schedule.”

The NCAA recently modified its rules to put greater emphasis on strong play in the regular season in regards to at-large bids for the NCAA Tournament, making the Big Ten season more important.

“It’s hard to say what kind of impact it will have, I don’t think anyone really knows,” Johnson said.

“It could help or hurt us. All we have to do is focus on one match at a time and hopefully our guys will be there at the end of the year.”

The Illini sent six grapplers to the NCAA Tournament last season, where the team finished 14th overall. In order to achieve the team goal of finishing among the top four teams that receive trophies, the Illini will likely have to send more.

In order to become the first Illinois team to take home hardware at the tournament, the squad will have to rely heavily on Poeta and junior Jimmy Kennedy, who both are expected to compete for the national title.

“We have the guys to do it,” Tirapelle said back in November. “We’re thinking big this year.”