Ghost of Championships past visits Illini wrestling at NCAAs

By Jay Lee

When he arrived at the team’s hotel in St. Louis on Tuesday for the NCAA Championships, senior heavyweight John Wise did not share the same excitement of his teammates and opponents.

“It’s scary to go back, to tell you the truth,” Wise said.

The team’s hotel is located mere blocks from an intersection that nearly took the life of his father. The day before Wise’s first match at last year’s NCAA Championships, the car carrying Wise’s father, Joe, and younger brother, Jamie, was struck by an oncoming truck.

Jamie escaped without any major injuries, but Joe was immediately hospitalized after sustaining 13 broken ribs, a fractured pelvis, and a serious brain injury.

“When I broke one rib, I couldn’t bear the pain,” Wise said. “I can’t even imagine 13 ribs.”

With his father in critical condition, Wise had little interest in competing in the tournament. But after encouragement from both his mother and father, Wise went on to win three of five matches, finishing one win shy of gaining All-American status.

A year later, Joe Wise is near full-health and in the stands at the Scottrade Center watching his son wrestle in his final collegiate matches. Wise defeated Wisconsin’s Kyle Massey and UC Davis’ Ricardo Alcala on Thursday to advance to Saturday’s quarterfinals.

“Last year, my family was on my mind. I couldn’t stop worrying and getting those bad thoughts out of my mind,” Wise said.

“But this year, I have them in mind in a different way. Last year I was trying to shake them off in order to wrestle for myself. This year, I’m out to wrestle for them, my teammates, my coaches, and not for myself.”

Wise was among four to advance in the championship bracket after Thursday’s preliminary session.

Falling early was 133-pound junior Jimmy Kennedy, who was upset by Bucknell’s Dave Marble, 7-5, in a sudden victory bout.

Kennedy rebounded with back-to-back wins in the wrestlebacks to remain in All-American contention.

Heading into Friday’s matches, No. 8 Illinois is currently in 6th place in the tournament. Leading the charge is senior Mike Poeta, who defeated his first two opponents by a 30-11 margin.

Last year’s NCAA Championships left a bad taste in Poeta’s mouth after he walked away with a 5-4 loss to Cornell’s Jordan Leen in the championship match.

“Right after that match, (assistant coach) Carl Perry pulled me aside and said, ‘Don’t forget how you feel right now,'” Poeta said.

“That feeling has been inside me and in the back of my mind this entire year.”

Poeta, who is a perfect 15-0 this season, will face Minnesota’s Tyler Safratowich in Friday’s quarterfinals with a possible rematch against Leen looming in the semifinals.

“All I have to be is Mike Poeta,” Poeta said. “If I do, then I’ll be the national champion.”