Illini aim to take down No. 1 Iowa

Mike Poeta competes against an Iowa wrestler on Feb. 24, 2008 at Huff Hall. No. 7 Illinois will face No. 1 Iowa this weekend. Erica Magda

By Jay Lee

Senior Mike Poeta has fond memories of the Illini’s last visit to Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

“Yeah, last time we beat them up pretty good,” Poeta said.

Back in February of 2006, Poeta’s 10-2 major decision broke a 13-13 tie, and Illinois never looked back on their way to a 24-13 win.

“We’ve had success there, there’s no question about that,” head coach Mark Johnson said. “We know we can win there.”

The task will be much larger this time around for Johnson and his No. 7 Illini, as the team travels to Iowa City on Sunday to take on the No. 1 Hawkeyes.

Last year, the Illini were on their way to an upset of the top-ranked Hawkeyes, only to lose three matches by a total of three points, two of which were decided in overtime. Iowa snuck away with a 21-12 win.

The Hawkeyes, who ran away with last year’s National Championship, have held their place atop the national rankings.

Seven of their 10 starters rank in the top five of their weight classes, including top-ranked Alex Tsirtsis at 141 pounds and Brent Metcalf, who wrestles at 149.

The duo has combined for a 36-1 record so far this year.

With a chance at redemption coinciding with the same night as their conference opener, the Illini (7-0) have had Sunday’s match circled on the calendar since the start of the year.

“If you’re not fired up for this, there is something wrong with you,” Johnson said at Thursday’s practice.

“I have been so ready to go, I wish it was tonight.”

Upsetting the Hawkeyes (15-0), who currently are on a 29-dual meet winning streak, will be no small feat for the Illini.

“I told the guys yesterday that you don’t just sit back against a team like this,” Johnson said.

“If you get punched, you have to punch them back. Some teams will get away with playing like that, but not against one of my teams.”

Not only will Sunday’ match be an opportunity for Illinois to avenge last year’s narrow loss, Jimmy Kennedy and Jordan Blanton will also have a chance at revenge for losses earlier in the season.

Kennedy will take on his former high school teammate Daniel Dennis, who is responsible for the only blemish on Kennedy’s 18-1 record thus far.

Dennis defeated Kennedy 5-3 in a double overtime sudden-death bout in the semifinals of the Midlands Championships in December.

Blanton will face off against Phil Keddy, who knocked Blanton out of the quarterfinals of the Midlands Championships with an 8-3 decision.

“I’m going to have to go out and wrestle seven minutes at my own pace to have a chance at beating (Keddy) this time around,” Blanton said.

“Any time you have a chance to take on one of the best guys in the country, you know you’re going to have to battle for everything.”

With only Kennedy and Poeta favored to win their matches, Johnson will have to count on Blanton and his seven other starters to pull some upsets.

“We’re going to have to win where we’re supposed to win, and then steal some upsets, but that’s generally how it turns out. Every time I figure it out on paper, we win,” a smiling Johnson said.