Illini continue to struggle against Big Ten

By Daniel Dexter

On a wrestling team that has been battling injuries all season, redshirt freshman Zac Brunson has been feeling the need to step up.

No. 16 Brunson took the mat against Michigan’s No. 13 Brian Murphy in the 157-pound match and, after a scoreless first period, was able to secure two minutes of riding time in the second and score a point for an escape in the third to win 2-0. Despite holding a lower ranking, Brunson didn’t think of the win as an upset.

“I definitely think now that I was the better wrestler,” Brunson said. “In the end, I got the win for the team and a win for myself. Whether it was an upset or not, I felt pretty good about it.”

Brunson’s gritty victory wasn’t enough for the Illini, however, as they dropped another Big Ten dual against Michigan on Friday by a final score of 13-19, remaining winless against the Big Ten.

Head coach Jim Heffernan is not overly concerned with the team record and has put a greater focus on individual performances, because individuals and not a team as a whole make it to the NCAA tournament in March. 

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Heffernan wouldn’t say he was disappointed with the team, and he sees its losses as learning opportunities for the future.

“There were situations in a couple of matches where if we were to score the next points, we would have won,” Heffernan said. “It was one of those deals where we just didn’t do enough. We pointed out some things, and I hope those were practical learning situations that our guys will get something from.”

In particular, he pointed to No. 11 Jackson Morse’s loss against No. 8 Dan Yates. Morse had trouble connecting on his attacks and putting pressure on his opponent, eventually losing the match 7-3.

“He did a good job of closing space and getting me to wrestle his match by putting me in a front headlock a lot,” Morse said. “He made me work hard from there.”

The injuries on the team continue to be a problem, with Mario Gonzalez and Steven Rodrigues sitting out of the meet. Heffernan said the biggest effect the injuries have had is limiting the healthy wrestlers’ chances to spar with teammates.

Illinois’ next challenge will be its biggest of the season as it travels to take on the No. 1 team and three-time reigning NCAA champion Penn State on Jan. 24.

Despite the losses, Brunson said the team has kept its spirits high as it heads into the most difficult part of the schedule. 

Heffernan is also looking forward to the challenge the Penn State dual presents, in which Illinois will be considered an underdog for the first time this season.

“Our guys should be excited, and the thing is we’re underdogs, so we have to compete that way,” Heffernan said. “If you can’t be ready for the No. 1 team in the country, the three-time defending champion in a packed gym, then you really don’t have a heartbeat.”

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