Wrestling squeaks by Wisconsin after falling big to Minnesota

It was a tale of two duals over the weekend for No. 21 Illinois wrestling.

After a disappointing loss to No. 5 Minnesota on Friday night in a meet that was over early, Illinois (8-6, 3-3 Big Ten) responded Sunday with an exciting 19-18 win over No. 13 Wisconsin in a match that went down to the wire.

Nearly 1,300 fans showed up for Friday night’s showdown against the Gophers, but many left disappointed as the Illini were manhandled from the start, losing 27-13. Illinois was spotted a quick 6-0 lead courtesy of a forfeit at 125 pounds but would never again lead as Minnesota came back with six straight victories, including a pin and three major decisions, to put the match away.

“The first five (matches) were really slow and pretty flat,” head coach Jim Heffernan said. “We needed something. We needed a spark in the first five to get us going and make something happen.”

Other than the forfeit, the only Illini victories of the night were picked up by a pair of seniors. No. 2 John Dergo continued to dominate, earning an 18-6 major decision over Kaleb Young at 184 pounds. That was followed up by No. 14 Patrick Bond upsetting No. 10 Sonny Yohn, 9-4, at 197 pounds.

The crowd was much lighter on Sunday, with a crowd of just more than 500 on hand to witness the Illini take on the Badgers. However, a technical fall by Clint Arlis at 157 pounds put the Illini up 5-0 early and pumped up the crowd.

“Whenever you have an electric crowd, whenever you have a crowd that’s into it, it always helps.” sophomore Eric Terrazas said. “When the crowd gets into it, it really carries you through that match.”

The fans stayed rowdy throughout as Wisconsin and Illinois went back and forth throughout the afternoon. The Badgers picked up four points with a victory by No. 1 Andrew Howe at 165 pounds, but the Illini responded with victories by No. 14 Jordan Blanton and Dergo to push the lead to 12-4. Wisconsin came right back with two straight victories to pull within two at 12-10 heading into the 125-pound match, where junior John Deneen gutted out a tough 4-2 victory to once again give Illinois a five-point advantage.

“(Deneen’s effort) was awesome. It’s been a tough year, but he’s found a way to win, and that’s important,” Heffernan said.

The lead was short-lived however, as No. 7 Tyler Graff dominated Daryl Thomas at 133 pounds for a technical fall and tied the team score at 15 apiece, meaning the dual would come down to the final two matches of the day.

At 141 pounds, No. 14 Ryan Prater started off the match aggressively, putting opponent Cole Schmitt on his heels. Prater fought hard in the second with three takedowns and nearly earned a pin before the buzzer sounded. The junior then finished strong in the third period to earn a 15-1 major decision and an important bonus point for the team.

“I just had to get some point for my team,” Prater said. “I haven’t really been doing too much for my team lately, but … when I went out there, for the first time I just felt like everything was just clicking. On my feet, I had a lot of energy, so I just felt really good out there.”

With a four-point lead, the Illini needed to hold off No. 5 Kyle Ruschell from scoring bonus points. Terrazas proved to be up to the task, as he lost a hard-fought 9-5 match but gave the Illini a 19-18 win.

The upset was the first time the Illini had beaten a ranked opponent this season in six tries. Heffernan was also much more impressed with the way his team performed Sunday.

“I thought the effort was much better across the board, even in the matches we lost,” Heffernan said. “Other than maybe two, I thought our guys competed very hard. I was much more pleased with our effort, and we looked excited to be out there. It wasn’t a punishment to have to compete tonight.”