Illini wrestling looks to carry momentum into National Duals

By Daniel Dexter

The No. 18 Illinois wrestling team will travel to Columbus, Ohio, for the NWCA National Duals this Sunday and Monday after finishing the regular season competition with consecutive wins.

The National Duals is a tournament of dual meets featuring 14 teams, including some of the best teams in the country such as No. 10 Oklahoma and No. 2 Minnesota. The Illini hope to make a statement in this tournament to show the rest of the country that they are contenders.

“I still think we are one of the best teams in the Big Ten, top five for sure,” redshirt freshman Zane Richards said. “If we put together the right type of matches and do well at our weights, we can beat teams like Minnesota. It’s got to be 100 percent commitment level at this point with a lot of confidence.”

Illinois will face Central Michigan in the first round of the tournament, which, with a win, will potentially put it in a position for revenge in the semifinal No. 4 Cornell — the team that handed the Illini their first loss of the season.

Cornell defeated Illinois at Madison Square Garden in December by a score of 15-18 and has remained undefeated this season. The loss still irks Richards because of how close the Illini came to a win.

“We had them in New York, and we just didn’t pull through at a couple of weights,” Richards said. “I don’t like the Northeast for some reason. It’s maybe because I’m from the Midwest and they think they’re better than us. I think we are the better team, and I want to beat them.”

Illinois was missing one member of the lineup against Cornell, and it will be missing one this weekend as well. Senior Mario Gonzalez will sit out again with an injured knee, but he is expected to return for the Big Ten Tournament. Others members on the team who have been battling injuries are not expected to miss any time. Associate head coach Mark Perry said he is happy with the way his team has been competing lately, despite injuries.

“They are a little beat up, but they are working back into it,” Perry said. “It’s been the same since weeks back. They are working towards the Big Tens and national championships. They are getting closer to full health. Now it’s just making sure that we don’t have any more setbacks.”

The team has not had a full lineup since the end of December, which the coaches claim as a reason for the team’s struggles. The two-week break between the National Duals and the Big Ten Tournament will give the Illini an opportunity to regain their strength.

The National Duals won’t affect the team in terms of placement at the Big Ten Tournament, but Perry wants to see his team continue its momentum.

“We have to get over that hump and start beating some of those guys,” Perry said. “We believe we will. We are trying to work into that tier. We are probably the tier below that now, and until we earn it, it’s kind of delusional of us to say that we are there. That’s what we’re working towards, and there really is no other goal.”

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