Illini wrestlers finally healthy for first home meets of season

Illinois+Ryan+Prater+holds+on+tight+to+keep+Michigans+Kellen+Russell+from+escaping+at+the+home+wrestling+meet+held+in+Huff+Hall+on+Friday%2C+Feb.+20%2C+2009.%0A

Illinois’ Ryan Prater holds on tight to keep Michigan’s Kellen Russell from escaping at the home wrestling meet held in Huff Hall on Friday, Feb. 20, 2009.

By Joe Souligne

Last year, the Illinois wrestling team drew the 15th-most fans in the country and rode the support to a perfect 6-0 record at Huff Hall.

This year, the No. 20 Illini (2-2) are hoping for more of the same as they kick off their home schedule Saturday against Findlay University and McKendree University. Illinois wrestled both squads last season, beating Findlay, 32-6, and McKendree, 39-9.

“I think it’s a great benefit (to wrestle at home). Having your own fans and family members there, it’s just a different atmosphere than going to wrestle at a tournament farther away or going to an opposing dual meet,” senior Patrick Bond said.

Bond, who returned from injury for last weekend’s Las Vegas Invitational, will join four other Illini in their return to the lineup. Sophomore Jordan Blanton, junior Ryan Prater and senior Clint Arlis are all expected to return after missing the Invitational and are likely to be joined by sophomore B.J. Futrell, who will be seeing his first dual-meet action of the season. All four are expected to wrestle in at least one of the two matches this weekend. The only wrestler still expected to be out of action this weekend is sophomore Eric Terrazas.

“I didn’t really like missing Vegas, but to sit out now (would be worse),” Prater said. “I had the same problems last year. I had to forfeit out of Vegas, but then I ended up coming back and wrestling all the way through March. So I’m hoping that the same thing happens and I’ll be able to come back.”

This weekend will be the closest the Illini have been to full strength since their first dual meet on Nov. 12. It will also be a good chance for head coach Jim Heffernan to evaluate how good his team really can be, something injuries have prevented for most of the season.

“I’m anxious to see in the next month, once we get everybody in (the lineup) and in shape and wrestling, how good we are,” Heffernan said. “It’s tough to tell where we’re at right now because we haven’t had everybody in there at one time. I think once we get everybody in there at one time, I think these guys will realize that they’re actually pretty good.”

Prater agreed, saying the team was “doing really good right now.”

“As a team, people aren’t really seeing the results that they’d like, but we’re hammering in (practice),” Prater said. “We’ve got five starters out, but I think we’re doing really good right now, asking everybody to step up. The kids that we took to Vegas stepped up as good as they (could). We’ve been asking a lot from them, and they’ve been pitching in and doing their share real well.”

Saturday’s matches will be the first of six home meets for the Illini, who have a history of strong home attendance. The Orange and Blue have finished in the top 20 nationally in attendance in each of the past five years and have been in the top 15 four times in that span. The matches begin at noon, and the Illini are hoping for a strong crowd turnout despite frigid weather forecasts.

“Hopefully there’s a lot of people there. I don’t know, with the snow and everything, but it’s big. It’s really like a kickoff to our season, so it should be fun,” Prater said.