Wrestling team comes away with victories in final two duals

By Daniel Dexter

The Illinois wrestling team stepped onto its home mat for the final time of the season Sunday and walked away victorious over rival Northwestern 24-12.

The Illini started its two-meet weekend with a narrow 18-16 victory at Purdue, which was only the second Big Ten win the team has had this season. The wrestlers had been on the losing end of close duals for most of the season, with losses to Cornell, Wisconsin and Ohio State by three points or fewer. And after a tough loss against Nebraska the previous weekend, Illinois coaches were looking to get the team back on track.

“We went in (against Nebraska), and we weren’t excited or fired up,” redshirt freshman Zac Brunson said. “After that match, the coaches let us know that we are the best team in the country, but if we are going to wrestle that way, we have to be excited.”

Head coach Jim Heffernan was much happier with the excitement the team displayed this weekend against both of its opponents. He said the team wrestled much harder and with a lot more energy, which gave the team a boost over its opponents.

One member of the team that Heffernan believes has wrestled with energy his whole career is senior Tony Dallago. That energy paid off for him in his final home dual as he broke the Illinois career pins record, putting him ahead of alumnus B.J. Futrell. While he was hesitant to admit it, Dallago was thinking about his chances at getting his 38th pin heading into the match.

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“It was in my head, and it was senior night.” Dallago said. “It was a great way to go out. … It’s not like I really ever go for the pin, but if it’s there, I’ll take it.”

Dallago’s win put Illinois up 9-6 against Northwestern, and the team didn’t fall behind the rest of the dual. Although after a win from hobbled 184-pound Niko Reyes, the Illini suffered consecutive losses from upper weight classes.

Sophomore Jeff Koepke filled in for the injured Mario Gonzalez at 197, and almost came away with a win against No. 15 Alez Polizzi. After being down late in the match, Koepke was able to come back and tie the match at the end of the third period but lost because Polizzi was awarded an extra point for recording over a minute of riding time. Despite the loss, Hefferenan said Koepke did a “hell of a job” against a tough opponent.

After another loss from heavyweight Chris Lopez, which tied the match, 125-pound Jesse Delgado put the dual away with a technical fall over Northwestern’s Dominick Malone. This was Delgado’s second technical fall of the weekend, and Heffernan believes it put him back on track after he struggled to get wins in his recent matches.

“The guy’s a national champion and an All-American as a freshman,” Heffernan said. “I think he knows what’s important. He changed some things and scoring some different ways. When Jesse is scoring like that, you can hardly watch him because he is so fast. … He is making progress and doing the right things. He is starting to look like himself again.”

Redshirt freshman Zane Richards and sophomore Steven Rodrigues finished Illinois’ last home dual meet with two more convincing wins. With the postseason about to begin, Brunson believes the team is starting to wrestle at its best, and these last two wins should give the Illini confidence heading into the postseason.

“The best time to win dual meets is right here at the end,” Brunson said. “This is what is going to get kids excited. Coming off these two big wins, I think we are going to be on fire.”

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