Delgado looks to repeat as 8 Illini wrestlers head to nationals

Michael Bojda The Daily Illini Jesse Delgado attempts to pin Levi Mele of Northwestern during Friday’s match at Huff Hall. Delgado lost 13-7.

By Daniel Dexter

As the referee raised junior Jesse Delgado’s arm proclaiming him the winner, his opponent Nico Megaludis had a few parting words for the two-time Big Ten champion: “I’ll see you at nationals.” 

Now, nearly two weeks removed from the Big Ten Tournament, Delgado and seven of his teammates are preparing to represent the Illinois wrestling team in Oklahoma City at the NCAA national championships, which begin Thursday and go through Saturday. 

Delgado took satisfaction in being able to win the Big Ten title at the expense of Megaludis, who defeated Delgado in a controversial match earlier in the year. Delgado beat Megaludis in last year’s national title match, but Delgado doesn’t care who he faces this year, he just wants to get to the top of the podium for a second consecutive year. 

“I think I’m better than anybody at the weight,” Delgado said. “Whether I am or not, I believe it. That’s what it’s going to come down to. Whoever truly thinks he is the best will win.”

Delgado will be the only Illini with a No. 1 seed at the tournament. He’s also the only wrestler to deliver a loss to the No. 2 seed Nahshon Garrett this season,who he defeated in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 1. Megaludis has the No. 3 seed, meaning a rematch could only come in the title match. 

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Head coach Jim Heffernan is confident Delgado has what it takes to win another title, but he has to compete at his best. Delgado has a chance to become the Illinois wrestling team’s first repeat national champion since 1958-59, which Heffernan believes would be a great boost to the program as a whole.

“There are only 10 (national champions) a year, so if we can have one every year, then that would be pretty darn good,” Heffernan said. “The kid has put the work in and done everything right.”

While Delgado has experience on the national stage, four other Illini wrestlers will be competing at the tournament for the first time, three of whom are redshirt freshmen. Sophomore Steven Rodrigues is the oldest of the first timers and has had the toughest journey to this point.

Rodrigues had to miss time at the beginning of the season recovering from an ACL tear. A month into his return, he was the only Illini to make it to the finals of the Midlands Championships, and he did it as an unseeded wrestler. His fortune ended in that championship match as he suffered a broken hand in defeat, putting his season on hold again.

Rodrigues was one of several Illini forced to watch the team compete from the sideline because of injury, but he was able to come back again after a month. A sixth-place finish at the Big Ten Tournament earned the 141-pounder an automatic bid for the national tournament, where he will once again be unseeded. His new challenge will be to avoid the nerves of competing as a first-time qualifier.

“The mat is no different at nationals than it is at Huff Hall,” Rodrigues said. “I’m going to have to block out the atmosphere out and just go wrestle. This is where I’ve dreamed about competing since I was a little kid.”

For junior Jackson Morse, nationals experience won’t be the issue, but the competition could be. He is wrestling in the same weight class as Penn State’s David Taylor, who is a former national champion and the frontrunner for wrestling’s top individual national prize, the Dan Hodge Trophy. Morse is excited for the chance to wrestle skilled competitors like Taylor at the national tournament after his two-year absence from the event.

Morse was able to qualify for nationals as a true freshman but couldn’t replicate the feat the following year. His disappointing sophomore season led to him being redshirted. After a year out of the lineup, Morse has come back strong this season as a junior, accumulating a 25-6 record. He finished fifth at the Big Ten Tournament and is now ready for another shot at his goal.

“I was obviously disappointed my sophomore year when I didn’t make it and didn’t even get a chance to compete for a title,” Morse said. “This is just time to do what I have been training for all season.”

Morse and the rest of the young Illini squad will have the opportunity to put its disappointing regular season behind it with a strong showing at nationals. Heffernan is confident his wrestlers can compete with experienced teams like three-time defending champ Penn State and Minnesota, but they will have stay focused on their purpose the entire time.

“You can’t be a spectator and get caught up with everything going on at nationals,” Heffernan said. “You have to be a selfish person for three days and worry about yourself.”

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