Freshmen pivotal for wrestling

From his upper-level seats, Illinois true freshman Jordan Blanton looked on as the Assembly Hall hosted the Illinois high school state wrestling tournament this past weekend.

“It’s hard to imagine that that was me out there only a year ago,” Blanton said. “It was weird being there as a fan, not as a competitor.”

Last year, the Richmond, Ill., native was on the Assembly Hall mats winning his third IHSA State Championship. Blanton ended a high school career in which he compiled a 152-1 record, with his only loss coming in the 2007 state title match.

Now taking down opposing grapplers at Huff Hall, Blanton has become the cornerstone of a freshman class that has paid dividends for Illinois head coach Mark Johnson and his No. 9 wrestling team.

“As far as the level of competition goes, there is no comparison to Big Ten wrestling,” Johnson said. “The jump from high school wrestling to college wrestling in itself is a big jump that is hard to handle, but when you’re thrown into Big Ten wrestling, it’s definitely not an easy task.”

B.J. Futrell and Eric Terrazas have combined with Blanton to give the Illini three true freshmen in the starting lineup – second in the Big Ten only to No. 16 Wisconsin’s four. The four true freshmen in Wisconsin’s starting lineup have combined for a 37-40 record on the season, whereas the Illini trio stands at a collective 61-32.

Outside of Wisconsin and Illinois, there are only three other true freshmen starting in the Big Ten.

“We wouldn’t be 13-2 and ranked in the top 10 in the country if it wasn’t for those three,” Johnson said. “The three freshmen have been the difference from us being a pretty good team to us being one of the best in the country.”

Blanton, the highest-ranked true freshman in the 184-pound class, has turned heads around the country. He recently drew praise from Ohio State head coach Tom Ryan after a 10-2 loss to defending national champion Mike Pucillo.

“Tom Ryan came up to me after and said, ‘That freshman is going to be real good,'” Johnson said. “The fact that he wrestled a national champion that tough says a lot about the kid.”

The 5-foot-6, 125-pound Futrell can easily be lost in the pack of kids who crowd him for autographs after matches. But the Mt. Carmel, Ill., product has been more than an adequate replacement following the graduation of three-time NCAA qualifier Gabe Flores last year. Ranked No. 25 in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), Futrell was one win shy of placing at the Las Vegas Invitational and the Midlands Championship on his way to racking up a 22-10 record.

“(B.J.) is successful because he’s not scared,” Johnson said. “You have to love the way he’ll go out and attack right away.”

Terrazas, who is the Illinois’ starter at 141 pounds, took a different path than his fellow freshmen. While Blanton and Futrell have five high school state titles between them, Terrazas never made it to the championships. Placing third in both his junior and senior year of high school, Terrazas came to Illinois buried in the depth chart, with many expecting the Wheaton, Ill., native to redshirt.

Blanton and Futrell have been penciled into the starting lineups since October, whereas Terrazas only found himself starting after sophomores Grant Paswall and Joey Kotowski both left the team in January.

“A few months ago, it would be hard to believe that I am where I am,” Terrazas said. “I always knew I had it in me to do well, but at the same time, it definitely is cool to see how far I have come and how everything unfolded.”

Terrazas struggled upon entering the lineup, losing his first six Big Ten matches. But Terrazas picked up two major decisions this past weekend with his wins playing a big part in the team’s victories against Michigan and Michigan State.

“Two straight major decisions is impressive for anyone, no matter how old you are,” Johnson said.

Terrazas’ 14-5 major decision over Michigan’s Mark Beaudry would play a pivotal role in the team’s 20-15 win over the Wolverines.

On the attack throughout the match, Terrazas notched two takedowns and two minutes of riding time by the end of the first period. A 9-3 lead with one minute left in the match meant gaining a major decision was in sight. But a quick step to his right triggered cramps in his right leg, leading to an injury timeout.

A season-high crowd of 1,409 rose to their feet to sound their support for Terrazas.

“Towards the end my leg was starting to give out, and all I was thinking about was getting that major (decision) and picking up those bonus points,” Terrazas said. “I can’t even begin to describe how amazing the crowd was, especially when I was trying to dig deep and pull that one out.”

Terrazas went on to post two more takedowns to secure the major decision, and the crowd erupted as the freshman rode out his opponent for the last 10 seconds to obtain his first Big Ten win.

“This is only the second time I’ve won a match at Huff. The first one was back in November against Findlay,” Terrazas said. “This is the first time the crowd here has been that into it for me, and it was just an incredible experience.”

When the team heads to the Big Ten Championships next week, the trio’s rookie campaigns will be nearing an end.

“It’s felt like I’ve gone to sleep and woken up and my freshman year is already over,” Blanton said. “I’ve grown a lot on and off the mat, and what we need to realize is that we’re contributing right now at such a young age because we have what it takes and the potential to be good in the Big Ten. Along with that comes a lot of expectation.”