Big Ten Championships on deck for Illini wrestling

Senior Mike Poeta has no reservations about the No. 8 Illinois wrestling team’s mindset going into the weekend’s Big Ten Championships.

“We have 10 guys that are expecting to go out and be Big Ten champions,” Poeta said. “If you’re not thinking like that at this point, there’s no business for you to be here.”

Poeta will lead the 10 Illini starters, who all received pre-rankings for the tournament, to the conference tournament at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pa. Preliminary competition begins on Saturday, with the semifinals and title matches taking place on Sunday.

Out of the 10 Illini grapplers competing in the tournament, Poeta has the best chance to bring the the team a Big Ten title. Last year’s defending champion at 157 pounds is the top seed, with Northwestern’s second-seeded Jason Welch and Indiana’s third-seeded Kurt Kinser expected to be his main competition. Poeta defeated both during the regular season.

“I feel as good physically as I have ever felt in my life before,” Poeta said. “I had a bit of a scare early in the season when the recovery from my knee surgery was coming along really slowly. But all the pieces of the puzzle have now really fallen in place.”

Outside of Poeta, 133-pounder Jimmy Kennedy will also be wrestling for the conference title. Whereas Poeta’s 157-pound class is relatively uncompetitive, the 133-pound class has emerged to be the conference’s toughest.

Five of the top six nationally ranked wrestlers at 133 pounds will be competing in the tournament, with Iowa’s Daniel Dennis receiving the top seed in the tournament. Michigan State’s Franklin Gomez stands as the No. 2 seed, with Kennedy holding the No. 3 seed. Last year, the then-No. 1 seeded Kennedy fell to Gomez in the championship match.

“The weight class is very up in the air this year,” Kennedy said. “My freshman year I was the No. 2 seed, last year I was the No. 1 seed, and now I’m at No. 3, so it’s a little mixed up in that sense. We’ve got the best wrestlers in the country there, but I know I can beat every single one of those guys.”

Along with Poeta and Kennedy, Roger Smith-Bergsrud, Jordan Blanton and John Wise all picked up No. 4 seeds in their respective weight classes. Illinois is the only school in the conference to have all ten of its wrestlers pre-ranked for the tournament. The top eight wrestlers for each class are pre-ranked.

“That’s actually a very typical year for us; we’ve always been a very balanced team,” Illinois head coach Mark Johnson said. “Really no surprises there. They came out the way we expected them to.”

In order to better last year’s fourth-place finish, the Illini will look for contributions from the lower-seeded wrestlers, including No. 8 seeds B.J. Futrell and Eric Terrazas, who are both true freshmen.

“We just need the guys to wrestle up to their seeds and beyond,” Johnson said. “We have guys that have been there before, and guys that haven’t. But top to bottom, that’s what we’re looking for these guys to do.”

Poeta, who remains undefeated on the season so far, has his sights set beyond this week’s tournament and on the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis, in two weeks.

“This is the mini-NCAA Tournament,” Poeta said. “It’s all about getting some momentum to springboard you toward St. Louis.”