Wrestling lands nine in NCAAs after strong Big Ten Tournament

Not even a canceled flight on Sunday night could ruin the No. 8 Illinois wrestling team’s high spirits following a second place finish at the Big Ten Tournament this weekend.

The team was unable to board their Sunday night flight because of the harsh weather in the Midwest, forcing the Illini to spend the night in Harrisburg, Pa.

Undeterred, the team rerouted from Harrisburg Airport to a nearby Olive Garden.

“Italian food tastes so much better when you wrestle well,” Illinois head coach Mark Johnson said.

Nine Illini wrestlers received automatic bids for the NCAA Tournament, including a second consecutive Big Ten Championship title for 157-pound senior Mike Poeta.

Illinois finished with 113.5 points on the weekend, the fourth-most points in school history.

“There were a lot of ‘ups’ on the weekend,” Johnson said. “We had nine of our 10 guys meet or exceed their seeds. We wrestled as well as we could, which is all that we wanted from our guys.”

As expected, Poeta faced little competition in the 157-pound class, defeating Northwestern’s Jason Welch in the championship match, 8-2.

Poeta took control of Welch early on, notching his first takedown 30 seconds into the match.

The Highland Park, Ill., native went on to post two more takedowns and two escapes to remain undefeated on the season.

Even still, Poeta wasn’t completely satisfied with the performance.

“I would say 80 percent,” Poeta said of his level of competition. “I was able to stay out of danger and separate myself from the competition, but I wasn’t at the level that I’m usually able to compete at.”

After the Illini advanced five grapplers from the quarterfinals, the team experienced its first disappointment when third-seeded Jimmy Kennedy lost 3-2 to Penn State’s sixth-seeded Jake Strayer in his quarterfinal match.

Kennedy posted a takedown 41 seconds into the match, but faced a 3-2 deficit at the end of the second period after giving up an escape and a takedown.

Strayer started out on top to start the final period and rode out Kennedy for the duration.

“It was a heartbreaker, a feeling that I’m not used to feeling,” Kennedy said. “After I lost, all I was thinking was ‘Dang, I just screwed my team over.'”

The loss took Kennedy out of the championship bracket and placed him in the consolation bracket, where the 133-pound junior defeated top-seeded Daniel Dennis and sixth-seeded Jayson Ness to finish in third place overall.

“It actually worked out for him,” Johnson said. “Dennis and Ness are two of the best in the country, and Jimmy set the tone for the team when he went out and had two big wins like that.”

Even though he wasn’t able to avenge his 3-1 loss to Michigan State’s Franklin Gomez in last year’s title match, Kennedy still turned heads by beating his former high school teammate Dennis, who had defeated Kennedy twice this season.

“The confidence factor is huge going into the national tournament,” Kennedy said. “To be able to go up against that level of competition and beat guys like Dennis and Ness, it builds a lot of momentum.”

Along with Kennedy, Patrick Bond (197 pounds) and John Wise (heavyweight) also finished in third place in their respective weight classes.

The fourth-seeded Wise defeated Minnesota’s second-seeded Ben Berhow 6-3 in the third-place match after Wise lost 6-4 to Iowa’s top-seeded Daniel Erekson.

“In the Big Ten Tournament, you have to be ready to go every match,” Wise said. “As ready as I thought I was (against Erekson), I wasn’t ready. He came out and got me from the start and I had to play catch up the entire match.”

Eighth-seeded true freshman Eric Terrazas was the only Illini not to receive an automatic bid, with his 149-pound class only giving bids to the top-five finishers. Terrazas matched his seed with an eighth-place finish.

“Even for Eric, the experience was great for him,” Johnson said. “He wrestled how he was supposed to, which is more than you should be able to say for a true freshman.”

The nine qualifiers marks the most for the Illini since the team sent all 10 wrestlers to Nationals in 2006.

“The whole theme of the Big Ten tournament is to get some momentum for Nationals,” Kennedy said. “The fact that we got nine guys going there is great, and it show’s how hard we’ve been working all along. Everything is starting to click.”