Senior wrestlers cherishing final weekends of season

Ned Mulka The Daily Illini Illinois John Wise wrestles opponent Paul Rands during the match between No. 9 Illinois and No. 17 Northwestern at Huff Hall on Friday, February 6th, 2009. Wise won in a technical fall 15-0 and the Illini triumphed 22-13 over the Wildcats.

Ned Mulka The Daily Illini Illinois’ John Wise wrestles opponent Paul Rands during the match between No. 9 Illinois and No. 17 Northwestern at Huff Hall on Friday, February 6th, 2009. Wise won in a technical fall 15-0 and the Illini triumphed 22-13 over the Wildcats.

By Jay Lee

Only two weekends of regular season play remain for Illinois wrestling, ranked eighth nationally, and no one knows that better than the team’s three seniors.

“It’s crunch time,” senior John Wise said. “All these past months in the season will come down to these few weeks.”

Illinois (10-1-0, 3-1-0 Big Ten) will take its three-match winning streak into the weekend, first welcoming No. 20 Indiana (14-4-1, 1-2-1) on Friday before heading to No. 6 Ohio State (12-2-0, 3-1-0) on Sunday.

Last season, the Illini took seven of 10 matches to defeat the then-No. 17 Hoosiers, 23-9. Illinois didn’t face Ohio State last year, but the Illini will take a 10-dual-meet winning streak against the Buckeyes to Columbus. The Illini haven’t lost to either school since 1996.

“These two meets are big ones, not just because we’re nearing the end of the season,” Wise said. “These are two good teams that we’re going to have to beat if we want to accomplish what we set out to do.”

Illinois will look for John Dergo to continue his recent success when he faces Indiana’s No. 15 Trevor Perry. Dergo, who defeated Perry twice last season, has won his last three bouts by a combined score of 34-12. The junior stands at 10-4 on the season after missing most of the year with a leg injury.

Illinois and Ohio State are evenly matched, so the meet could come down to the 133-pound class, where Illinois’ No. 3 Jimmy Kennedy will face off against No. 2 Reece Humphrey. This will be the first collegiate meeting between the juniors, although the two have a common opponent in Minnesota’s Jayson Ness. Humphrey lost to Ness 5-0 on Feb. 1, while Kennedy beat Ness 7-5 at the NWCA All-Star Classic in November.

A weekend sweep could put the Illini in the driver’s seat for second place in the conference.

“This whole time our eyes are set on the Big Ten Tournament and the national tournament,” head coach Mark Johnson said. “But each one of these conference dual meets plays an important role in putting us in a place to succeed at the end.”

With the postseason looming, Johnson will look to Wise and fellow seniors Mike Poeta and Roger Smith-Bergsrud. All of them qualified for nationals last year.

“The entire season we just focus on the end. That’s where credentials are won and lost, and they know that,” Johnson said. “This is when we need these guys to step up and take charge.”

The Big Ten Tournament begins March 7 and the NCAA Championships follow two weeks later. but even with the entire season coming down to a few short weeks, the seniors can’t ignore the sentimental aspect of the upcoming meets.

“I feel a little rushed,” Smith-Bergsrud said. “I’ve been wrestling since I was five, and now it’s all going to come down to 40 days.

“It’s kind of weird to think that that’ll be it. We kind of have to think about that in the back of our heads as we go out and dive into these few weeks.”

This experience isn’t new to Poeta, who went through this last year in what he thought would be his last season. The fifth-year senior was granted an extra year of eligibility.

Regardless, Johnson knows that the weekend will be the beginning of a special few weeks for his three seniors.

“When you’re getting ready to wrap it up and go out there for the very last time, there’s a lot of emotion involved,” Johnson said.

“I’ve been going through this for 17 years now, telling the seniors to look around and appreciate the great run that they’ve been through. It’s important to end on a high note.”