Delgado looks to repeat as Illini head to Big Tens

Illinois’ Jesse Delgado wrestles Michigan’s Conor Youtsey at Huff Hall on Friday, Jan. 18, 2014.

By Daniel Dexter

Despite entering the conference tournament as the reigning Big Ten and national champion, junior Jesse Delgado will not be favored to win.

When Illinois wrestling travels to Madison, Wis., this weekend for the Big Ten Tournament, it will look to improve on its fifth-place finish from last year. In addition to the team performance, the meet is a vital opportunity for individual wrestlers to qualify for the national tournament.

Delgado will be looking to repeat as the 125-pound Big Ten champion; however, he will once again have to go through his rival Nico Megaludis of Penn State, the only wrestler seeded above him, in order to achieve his goal.

Delgado started the season ranked No. 1, but losses to Megaludis and Iowa’s Thomas Gilman at Midlands dropped him to No. 3. The seeding isn’t much of a concern for Delgado. He was seeded No. 3 at the tournament last year and defeated Megaludis in the semifinals en route to his first Big Ten title. This year, he expects the same result.

“I don’t think it really matters if I am the one seed, two seed or unseeded,” Delgado said. “The best wrestler is going to win.”

Delgado said it might be more difficult to repeat since he has been scouted more by his opposition this season, but he feels he has overcome adversity in the past and is confident he can do it again.

Aside from Delgado, senior Mario Gonzalez will be another former Big Ten champion looking to reclaim the title. Gonzalez won the tournament in 2012, and he will be the No. 6 seed after battling through an injury-plagued season. Gonzalez was able to compete in just two conference matches this season, winning both of them.

The team has dealt with injuries all season, but it will have a full lineup at the tournament after the wrestlers were given a three-week break to prepare and rest accordingly.

“At this point, they are as good as they can be,” associate head coach Mark Perry said. “I think their health is better than it was three weeks ago, but the most important thing in this sport is to be mentally prepared for everything. If we are mentally prepared, then it will all fall into place.”

Perry, a former Big Ten champion himself, said self-confidence will be key to being successful this weekend, especially for the younger wrestlers who may have to deal with the nerves of competing at their first Big Ten Tournament.

Redshirt freshman Zac Brunson believes the three-week break in competition has given him more time to mentally prepare to wrestle his best for a full seven-minute match. In its final week of practice before traveling to Madison, training has eased up more, so the wrestlers can go in fresh and ready to compete.

Brunson is also looking to capitalize on opportunity at revenge for a loss he suffered earlier this season against No. 2 seed James Green of Nebraska, but mostly he is just excited to be competing in his first Big Ten Tournament.

“I’ve been watching the Big Ten Tournament since I was a little kid, and it’s just one of those things I’ve always wanted to wrestle in,” Brunson said.

With the talent level at the tournament, Perry thinks the Illini will need to perform at their best to crack the top five with hopes of a third-place finish behind experienced wrestling powerhouses Penn State and Minnesota.

While doing well at the Big Ten Tournament is important, Perry sees the event as the nation’s toughest qualifier for the ultimate goal: the NCAA tournament. The team underperformed to Perry’s expectations this preseason because of the injuries, but if it can have a good showing this weekend, Illinois could still feature multiple wrestlers on the national stage.

“It hasn’t been the season we planned last summer,” Perry said. “We can be sitting here at 15-1 and feeling a lot better about how our season went, but we know what we are capable of. We know we are young and talented. These guys eat, sleep and breathe this sport in and out with each other every day.”

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

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jesse Delgado lost to Cory Clark of Iowa. He actually lost to Thomas Gilman of Iowa at Midlands. The Daily Illini regrets the error.