Illini wrestling team suffers disappointing loss in Madison Square Garden

By Daniel Dexter

With the score tied, the Illinois wrestling team had one more match to decide the winner of its duel against Cornell under the lights of one of the world’s most famous arenas: Madison Square Garden.

Heavyweight Chris Lopez took to the mat against Cornell’s Stryker Lane. Lopez was able to score off a takedown in the first period, but Lane came back to tie the score by the end of the third period, forcing the match into sudden victory. The match’s length proved to be too much for Lopez as he gave up an escape to Lane, losing the match 4-3 in the second overtime period and resulting in Illinois’ first loss of the season.

“I think a little bit of the nerves got to me, and toward the end I was getting a little tired. I kind of wrestled a heavyweight match, and I didn’t open up as much as I like to sometimes,” Lopez said. “Instead of moving around and getting shots, I was kind of hand fighting, which is what a lot of heavyweights usually do.”

The 18-15 loss to Cornell came after defeating Bloomsburg 29-18 earlier Sunday at the second annual Grapple in the Garden in New York City. This was the first time the Illini were invited to compete at the event.

Head coach Jim Heffernan felt the team gave the Cornell dual away after being in the lead earlier. Along with the team’s health, he attributed the loss to poor decision making on the part of the younger members of the team.

Redshirt freshman Nikko Reyes was caught in a pin with five seconds remaining in the 184-pound match. Heffernan said Reyes should have stayed basic toward the end of the match with his opponent controlling his leg, instead of trying a move that eventually ended up costing the team six points.

Despite the disappointing team finish against Cornell, 125-pound Jesse Delgado came away with a 6-2 victory against No. 2 Nahshon Garret, an opponent Delgado defeated at the semifinals of the NCAA tournament last year en route to his national championship. Although he was named Outstanding Wrestler of the event, Delgado criticized himself for his foot movement and not being able to get off clean shots.

Heffernan praised the performance of 165-pound Jackson Morse, who scored an 11-0 major decision victory against Bloomsburg’s No. 6 Josh Veltre. Morse is still undefeated this season and feels that he has finally figured out his routine in his fourth season at Illinois.

“I followed my game plan pretty well,” Morse said. “I have been able to take down guys early and let my wrestling on top go to work.”

Aside from the competition aspect, the event also offered the opportunity for the wrestlers to take center stage in Madison Square Garden, the location of some of the most historic sporting events in history. Lopez said that was something he discussed with his team in the locker room as the Illini were getting ready.

“A lot of professional teams have been in there, and a lot of historical moments have happened in there,” Lopez said. “It’s crazy to be in the same area, warming up in the same area as they were in. We had a pretty packed crowd, so it was a lot of fun.”

The weekend also marked the end of the team’s nonconference duals, as it will be taking on Wisconsin on Friday in Madison. Heffernan believes Cornell was a good preview as to what they will see against Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin, matchup-wise, is very similar to us, like Cornell, where they are very solid team,” Heffernan said. “They have some strong individuals that match up well against us. So it’s going to be another dog fight.”

Daniel can be reached at [email protected] and @ddexter23.