Tough match ahead for Illini wrestlers

The Illini wrestlers are going streaking.

No. 21 Illinois (8-7, 3-4 Big Ten) will finish off its regular-season schedule Thursday when No. 23 Purdue (10-10, 1-6) visits Huff Hall. The Illini have won 11 straight matches against the Boilermakers, dating back to 1998, but that’s not the only streak on the line. Illinois will be looking to complete its 18th consecutive winning regular season as well as its 14th straight Big Ten record of .500 or better.

“I think it’s always important to finish strong,” sophomore Eric Terrazas said. “If we can get this win, finish above .500 and take some momentum into Big Tens and NCAAs, that’s always big.”

The Boilermakers also come in riding a streak of their own, having lost their last six matches. They are led at 174 pounds by No. 6 Luke Manuel, who has compiled 35 wins this season, the most in the nation, against just two losses. Purdue also boasts ranked wrestlers in No. 19 Cashé Quiroga at 125 pounds and No. 15 Logan Brown at 197 pounds.

But despite Purdue’s struggles this season, Illinois should still be prepared for a tough match.

“It will be tight. There’s a lot of good matchups,” head coach Jim Heffernan said. “There’s a lot of toss-ups I think, in my view anyway, that we need to win to have a chance.”

One of those key matches will likely be at 149 pounds, where Terrazas has lost five of his last six matches after an 11-0 start. The five losses have been close, though, and have all come at the hands of ranked opponents.

“Losing period is just frustrating, (and) to have a couple of them be real close is a little frustrating,” said Terrazas, who is currently ranked No. 19 by Intermat. “But at the same time, I get to work towards making up that gap and closing that gap a little bit. Hopefully next time I’ll get a few more points and win those close matches.”

The 174-pound match could also help sway the outcome, with No. 13 Jordan Blanton facing a higher-ranked wrestler for the third time in the past four matches. Blanton is 0-2 in those matches so far but said they have been helpful in preparing him for the postseason.

“It’s always good to kind of see where you’re at and measure yourself against the best,” Blanton said. “It gives you a chance to get that training, to get in those tough matches. Unfortunately, I’ve come up on the short end of the stick, but I’m learning from those losses and I think I’m getting better every day.”

While the Illini will certainly need big performances from Blanton and Terrazas, Heffernan was quick to point out that it will take a team effort for the Illini to earn just their second victory over a ranked foe this season.

“All 10 of them (are key matches),” Heffernan said. “Every one of them is important, because it’s tight. It’s one of those things where we might have to get an upset or avoid an upset, for that matter.”

Thursday’s match is also being touted as “The Great Escape,” with free attendance for all fans and free food being given to the first 1,000 through the door. And with the IHSA state wrestling tournament also in town for the weekend, the crowd could end up playing a key factor for the Illini.