Illinois goes 2-2 at the National Duals

By Daniel Dexter

With hopes of gaining more momentum heading into the Big Ten Tournament, the No. 15 Illinois wrestling team traveled to Columbus, Ohio, for the NWCA National Duals on Sunday and Monday.

Illinois began the tournament with a loss to Central Michigan by a score of 19-13 before bouncing back with a 23-8 victory over Bloomsburg on Sunday. On Monday, the team reversed the order, winning 24-13 over Kent State before falling to Oregon State 18-17 to finish the weekend 2-2.

Against Central Michigan, head coach Jim Heffernan said the team let three close matches get away, two by one point and one in overtime.

Even though Central Michigan isn’t ranked, Heffernan said he doesn’t think his team underestimated its opponent because the team is usually talented. Central Michigan was knocked out of the winners bracket the next round by No. 11 Oklahoma.

Illinois’ opening-round loss sent it to the consolation bracket where it faced Bloomsburg, a team the Illini previously defeated at the Grapple in the Garden.

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“Bloomsburg gave Oklahoma everything they had in the first round, and it was a really close dual,” Heffernan said. “We knew what to expect from Bloomsburg because we had wrestled them earlier in the year.”

The rematch of the two teams had a similar result, as Illinois was able to come away with a 23-8 victory. Against Bloomsburg, the Illini bounced back in weight classes that they had lost in the previous round, including a major decision victory from sophomore Steven Rodrigues.

Heffernan also praised the efforts of redshirt freshman John Fahy and sophomore Jeff Koepke. Both wrestlers filled in for the injured Caleb Ervin and Mario Gonzalez, respectively. Ervin and Gonzalez competed up a weight class, and Fahy was able to get an upset win over Bloomsburg’s No. 18 Bryce Busler. Heffernan expects the injured wrestlers to return in time for the Big Ten Tournament.

Illinois opened up its competition on Monday against Kent State, which was coming off a victory over Iowa State followed by a loss to Ohio State. The Illini controlled the entire dual meet and were able to accomplish something they struggled with the previous day: getting bonus points. Illinois had three wrestlers win by major decision and junior Jesse Delgado won by a pin on the team’s way to a 24-13 victory.

One of the wrestlers to earn a major decision was junior Jackson Morse. Delgado and Morse were the only two wrestlers to win all four of their matches in the tournament. Morse was satisfied with how he did during the tournament and said it created some personal momentum for him heading into the Big Ten Tournament; however, he still found room for improvement despite the success.

“I need to be able to score more in third period,” Morse said. “I wasn’t scoring much in the third period this weekend, and I need to be able to do that in big matches coming up.”

The team finished the tournament with another close loss, this time against Oregon State by a score of 18-17.  

The dual came down to heavyweight Chris Lopez with the Illini trailing by four. Lopez was able to secure an upset victory over No. 15 Amarveer Dhesi, but he didn’t get the team points necessary to tie or win the dual. Despite the team loss, Lopez was content with the way he performed in the match. He felt he opened himself up more against his opponent, which is something he hopes to carry over into the postseason.

Overall, Heffernan said the tournament was beneficial to his team since it gives them even more practice before the postseason. From here on, the wrestlers will be competing for themselves, and they have already turned their focus toward the next step.

“Every match we go into, we have the intention of winning. Obviously we wanted to bring back a team trophy, but it didn’t work out that way,” Lopez said. “But we aren’t going to dwell too much on how we did here because in a couple of weeks we have Big Tens, which is basically what we have been training for all year.”

Daniel can be reached at [email protected]

and @ddexter23.