Rodrigues returns to Illini wrestling lineup

By Daniel Dexter

The Illinois wrestling team continued to battle injuries this weekend with redshirt senior Mario Gonzalez and redshirt sophomore Caleb Ervin sitting out of the Northwestern dual. The two were replaced with redshirt sophomore Jeff Koepke and John Fahy, respectively.

Illinois has suffered from injuries for the majority of the season, often missing two wrestlers from the lineup; However, head coach Jim Heffernan is confident the injured members will be prepared for the postseason.

The Illini did see the return of redshirt sophomore Steven Rodrigues this weekend. Rodrigues has missed the last month of action with a broken hand. Heffernan praised his comeback performance, as he went 1-1 on the weekend with an impressive 7-2 victory over Northwestern.

Redshirt freshmen provide energy to Illini

The Illini have received a boost from two of the youngest wrestlers in the lineup: redshirt freshmen Zane Richards and Zac Brunson.

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The two have put up a winning record and are both ranked in their respective weight classes. Brunson went 2-0 on the weekend; Richards went 1-1.

Despite their success, Heffernan still found room for improvement in both wrestlers.

In Brunson’s win against Northwestern, Heffernan said he would’ve liked to see Brunson continue to fight after he went up 9-1 in the first period. Brunson allowed his opponent to fight back and missed out on securing bonus points for the team score.

Heffernan also pointed out that Richards needs to stay confident even if the situation looks bad, which is something he failed to do in his loss against Purdue.

“One situation went against (Richards), and he went downhill from there,” Heffernan said. “He is a tough enough kid and needs to learn how to fight through those situations.”

Looking forward

Now that the Illini have finished regular season competition, their next step is NWCA National duals next weekend at Columbus, Ohio before the Big Ten Tournament starts. The team then expects to send at least seven wrestlers to compete at the national tournament in March.

While the team does take the regular season seriously, redshirt senior Tony Dallago pointed out that it doesn’t have much effect on the results of the postseason besides for seeding. So despite the team’s disappointing regular season, it can make up for it at the Big Ten Tournament and nationals.

“We just wrestled these last two the way we should have wrestled a lot of our other dual meets, but unfortunately, we didn’t,” Dallago said. “We are starting to figure it out, and that’s all that matters at the end of the season. The dual meets don’t really matter, but there is no national champion of dual meets. We are just prepping for Big Tens and NCAAs at this point.”

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