Illinois wrestling team falls to Nebraska at home

By Daniel Dexter

After a long road trip the previous weekend, the No. 13 Illinois wrestling team hoped to excite fans with a win over No. 7 Nebraska in its return home, but it fell flat against a conference opponent once again, losing by a score of 22-13.

Going into Saturday’s dual, Illinois coaches were confident their wrestlers could prove they were better than the team’s record showed; however, the Illini lost several close matches and a few blowouts to lose the dual, bringing their Big Ten record to 1-5. After the match, head coach Jim Heffernan criticized his team for its lack of aggressiveness against a tough opponent.

“Across the board, we didn’t have enough fight, and I think we gave away a couple of matches that we should have won,” Heffernan said.

Heffernan pointed to heavyweight Chris Lopez’s match as one that was given away. Lopez kept the match close for the entire time, but with the score tied at the end of the third period, he relaxed his stance. His opponent took advantage of the opportunity, scoring a quick takedown in the final seconds to give himself a 3-1 victory.

Redshirt freshman Zac Brunson had the toughest match of the night as he took on No. 1 ranked James Green. Green controlled the match the entire time, overpowering Brunson with takedowns and near-falls to win 10-3. Brunson said he was frustrated by the way he wrestled, feeling he missed the opportunity to bring his best against a highly ranked opponent.

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“Instead of hustling and getting back up trying to compensate my mistakes by scoring my own points, I kind of just gave the match away and laid down for him,” Brunson said.

The team also had trouble in some of its wins with national champion Jesse Delgado struggling to score points as of late because of the way opponents have been wrestling him, Heffernan said. Delgado won but in a low-scoring match because of his opponent’s conservative style of wrestling. Opponents are wrestling him this way in order to keep the match close until the end, which gives them a better opportunity to overcome his skill.

“He needs to make sure he makes adjustments and not get so frustrated,” Heffernan said. “He is never really in danger, but he needs to score against guys who aren’t going to wrestle him.”

The team has also struggled with injuries throughout the season but seems to be getting healthy again with the return of redshirt senior Mario Gonzalez to the lineup.

In his first match back, Gonzalez kept it close for most of the match with both wrestlers scoring their only points of regulation on escapes. In the match’s first 30-second tiebreak, Gonzalez was able to score a reversal from the bottom but fell in the process and hurt his knee. Gonzalez remained on his back for a few minutes but was able to get up and finish the match hobbling on one leg, winning by a score of 3-2.

His teammates were thrilled to see one of the senior leaders back in the lineup and were even happier to see him get a win in such a fashion.

“Mario has been struggling with injuries all season long,” Brunson said. “We were dying to have him back because he is one tough son of a bitch. He was able to go out there and battle through even more injuries and still get the win. I think it was fantastic for us.”

The team is only missing 141-pound Steven Rodrigues from the lineup, but he is expected to return this weekend when the team travels to Purdue on Friday and comes home to face Northwestern on Sunday.

Brunson and the rest of the Illinois wrestlers will be looking to redeem themselves in front of the home crowd in their last home dual of the season.

“When Northwestern comes here, I want to be excited and show the fans that I’m wrestling for them,” Brunson said. “I want to beat my opponent and have a high scoring match, something that the fans will enjoy.”

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