Illini wrestling seek first ever National Duals championship

The No. 5 Illinois wrestling team’s Final Four appearance at the NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals on Sunday marks the second time in school history they’ve advanced this far.

This season’s 16 wins also tie the record set during 2004-05, the only other season in which they competed in the National Duals.

The Illini, along with No. 4 Iowa, No. 3 Minnesota and No. 1 Oklahoma State, each won their respective regionals to advance to the Final Four, which will take place at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Okla.

With eight teams currently ranked in the top 25 and three teams in the Final Four, the Big Ten’s reputation speaks for itself.

“That just shows what everybody already knows: the Big Ten is the toughest conference in wrestling,” junior B.J. Futrell said.

The Illini are slated to compete against host and national powerhouse Oklahoma State, which they’ve only defeated once in 13 tries in a series that began in 1960.

Illinois head coach Jim Heffernan understands the tough task of competing against the eight-time National Duals champions.

“Having the opportunity to wrestle the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym is a big deal, and I think our guys are really looking forward to it,” Heffernan said.

Conference foes Iowa and Minnesota will compete for the other spot in the finals.

Both semifinal dual meets will start at 2 p.m. Sunday, with the finals scheduled for 6 p.m.

Having lost to the Hawkeyes and Gophers during the regular season gives the Illini confidence.

“We’ve wrestled two of the three teams that are there, and a takedown here or one of the matches go our way, we win both of those duals,” Futrell said.

After defeating defending-champion Cornell last weekend and having competed against numerous ranked teams throughout the season, they’ve put themselves in a position to join the national wrestling scene, which is a goal they have in mind.

“It’s a big deal for us to build our program,” Heffernan said.

Futrell agreed with his head coach, saying it’s all about “proving that we are one of those top programs.”

Sunday’s semifinal against Oklahoma State has a friendly aspect to it, with the Cowboys’ 125- and 157-pounders, Jon Morrison and Albert White, being good friends of Futrell and junior Conrad Polz.

Neither wrestler has spoken to his childhood friend in the days leading up to their dual meet with a spot in the finals on the line.

Oklahoma State also has a family competition involved, as Illinois associate head coach Mark Perry returns home to Stillwater to face his uncle, Cowboys head coach John Smith, and brother, Cowboys’ 174-pound Chris Perry.

Storylines aside, Illinois is somewhat of an underdog compared to its three counterparts. But the Illini are not intimidated.

“I think some people might say we’re underdogs, but we like that position,” Polz said.

Winning the National Duals would give the Illini a record-setting 17th dual meet win and first ever National Duals championship.

“It’s a privilege to go out and do this,” Polz said. “We’ve worked our way there. We expect to go out there, compete hard and hopefully win.”

The last time they made it this far, they lost in the finals 22-15 to Oklahoma State.

Seven years later, it’s the Cowboys who stand in the Illini’s way again.