Blanton won’t back down

By Jay Lee

Most freshmen spend their first semester on campus accumulating a forgettable GPA and packing on a few too many pounds. But after his first semester, Jordan Blanton has been hard at work.

The true freshman has already unseated a returning starter on the No. 9 Illinois wrestling team, defeated a pair of ranked opponents and finds himself at No. 12 in the national rankings.

“Jordan Blanton doesn’t fear anybody,” Illinois head coach Mark Johnson said.

Blanton’s mettle will be put to the test Friday when the Illini (8-1-0, 1-1-0 Big Ten) host the No. 16 Northwestern Wildcats (9-3-1, 2-0-1) in their conference home opener. Blanton is slated to face off against Northwestern’s top-ranked Jake Herbert.

Herbert, who won the National Championship in the 184-pound class in 2007, took last year off to train for the Beijing Olympics. After gaining an extra year of eligibility, Herbert has returned to post a 21-0 record and is now the clear-cut favorite to win the national title once again.

“(Herbert) is about as they good as they get,” Johnson said. “He’s been there and he’s proven what kind of wrestler he is. There is no doubt that Jordan will have his hands full.”

Even though the relatively inexperienced Blanton will be going up against a seasoned fifth-year senior, he remains unfazed.

“He’s one of the best out there, but this is why you wrestle,” Blanton said. “The only mindset change that I’m going to have is that I can’t allow myself to take any breaks. This is going to be seven minutes of physical hell, but I’m ready for it.”

“Physical hell” may sound overwhelming to some, but not for Blanton, who Johnson says is “one of the hardest workers in practice.”

“I’ve had in it the back of my mind for a few weeks now, so for the past few weeks I’ve been really beating myself up during practice so that I’ll be able to handle it when matches like this come around,” Blanton said.

Preparation has been the theme of Blanton’s surprise freshman season so far, with the Richmond, Ill., native coming to campus in June to prepare for the season. The extra effort allowed Blanton to win the starting spot at 184 pounds from returning starter Ben Friedl.

“I wanted my summer to kind of be my redshirt season,” Blanton said. “I learned a ton and definitely went through a lot physically, but it was so that I could contribute like this right away.”

The matchup between the two 184-pound grapplers will be one of many highly anticipated matchups between the in-state rivals, with fellow true freshman B.J. Futrell facing off against Northwestern’s No. 3 Brandon Precin at 125 pounds and Illinois’ No. 1 Mike Poeta competing against No. 14 Jason Welch at 157 pounds.

After Friday’s meet, the Illini will take Saturday off before heading up to Madison, Wis., on Sunday to take on No. 17 Wisconsin.

“So far during conference season, we’ve only had one match per weekend,” senior John Wise said. “But now with having two, you’re going to have to be on guard. If you have a bad match Friday, you have to be able to shake it off and go compete on Sunday. And on the same note, if you have a good match Friday, you have to make sure to go again on Sunday.”

All eyes will be on Wise, who is No. 10 in the national rankings, as he takes on Wisconsin’s No. 9 Kyle Massey. Wise has faced the Badger on four occasions in his career but has yet to win.

“It’s all a matter of stepping on the mat and competing,” Wise said. “Kyle’s a good wrestler, but so am I. There won’t be any easy breaks.”

Wrestling stages ‘Great Escape’

Fans attending this Friday’s match against No. 16 Northwestern may have the chance to make some extra cash. A series of T-shirts will be launched into the crowd during intermission between the fifth and sixth matches, two of which will earn their recipients a trip down to the main mat for what the team has dubbed the ‘Illinois Wrestling Stimulus Plan.’ The two contestants will be blindfolded while $100 dollars is spread out on the mat – 50 $1 bills and a single $50 bill. The pair will then have 30 seconds to collect as much of the money as they can. The match will also feature a scooter giveaway between the first and second halves.