Delgado wins another national title for Illinois wrestling

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

By Daniel Dexter

On wrestling’s biggest stage, junior Jesse Delgado relied on his best skill to take home another national title: the scramble.

The 125-pound defending champion was once again under college wrestling’s brightest lights, the finals of the NCAA tournament in Oklahoma City on March 22. In his second go-around in the finals, Delgado met a familiar foe in Nahshon Garrett of Cornell. History favored Delgado, who defeated Garrett in the NCAA semifinals last year en route to his first national title and earlier this season at Madison Square Garden.

Garrett controlled the pace in the first period with two powerful shots that knocked Delgado off his feet and forced him to contort his body away from his opponent’s grasp to avoid giving up two points.

“I think (the coaches) are on the edge of their seat sometimes when I’m getting twisted like that,” Delgado said. “It makes it fun for people to watch, though, if they’re not from Penn State or Cornell.”

Despite all of the attacks from Garrett, it was Delgado who capitalized on his shot shortly after scoring an escape point, which brought the score to 3-0 at the end of the second period. Delgado managed to hold off Garrett for the remainder of the match and walk away with a 3-2 victory and his second championship in as many years.

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The now two-time NCAA champion walked off the mat and embraced associate head coach Mark Perry, who Delgado followed to Illinois from Cal Poly after Perry took a position with the Illini in 2011.

Perry, a former two-time national champion himself, was the co-head coach for the Cal Poly wrestling team when Delgado came to the school. The California native was not recruited by the wrestling powerhouses of the Big Ten, but Perry believed Delgado could make the transition to the next level.

“I’ve always had that confidence in any guy I coach; it’s a matter of whether they have that confidence in themselves,” Perry said. “Jesse believes in himself. He really believes he can get the job done.”

When the two transitioned to Illinois, Delgado was introduced to assistant coach Jeremy Hunter, who was a former national champion at 125-pounds. Hunter and Delgado worked one-on-one to prepare Delgado for the rigors of Big Ten wrestling.

Delgado’s confidence and the tutelage of Hunter and Perry helped propel the transfer student to a national title in his second year with the Illini, overcoming opponents from top wrestling schools like Penn State and Iowa. During their journey from Cal Poly to Illinois, Perry and Delgado developed a relationship that extends beyond the mat.

“(Perry’s) more than a coach; (he’s) a mentor, a brother and a friend,” Delgado said. “He’s someone I’m going to have for the rest of my life.”

Despite coming into this season as a defending champion, Delgado was presented with a new set of challenges. Opponents started to change the way they wrestle him.

Delgado is one of the fastest wrestlers in the sport. But others began to combat his speed by dropping to their knees to prevent Delgado from attacking.

This strategy has been a source of frustration for Delgado and his coaches, who feel opponents are stalling by using this technique.

“Some guys will say, ‘Delgado is not shooting,’” Perry said. “How is it possible to shoot when a guy is on his knees? It’s been throwing us off, and it’s been frustrating for Jesse. He is honestly one of the most offensive guys at any weight.”

Delgado had to become a more defensive wrestler this season and has been limited to three or four shots a match, a steep decline from the 30 shots Perry said Delgado was taking in his earlier matches.

Garrett used this tactic in the championship match, but at the moment Garrett got off his knees, Delgado went in for the shot.

“He was out of position for a split second, half a second maybe,” Delgado said. “I saw it and took advantage of it. I knew if I got to his leg, I was going to finish.”

His consecutive titles make him the first Illini to accomplish the feat in 56 years. It helped Illinois wrestling attain a 13th place finish nationally, which Perry was disappointed in.

The Illini came into the season with aspirations of challenging the top teams in the country. Injuries and youth derailed any momentum they built. Perry hopes that a healthy and more experienced team can find itself in the national title discussion a year from now.

“This is a team, in the next couple of years, that will be one of the most talented teams in the country,” Perry said. “To have a guy like Jesse Delgado for these guys to look up to and see how to get it done, he can be a spearhead to get us into that national title picture.”

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