Wrestling ends season with national champion but fails to meet expectations


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

By Daniel Dexter

Despite Jesse Delgado bringing home another individual national championship for the Illinois wrestling team, head coach Jim Heffernan was still not satisfied with the season as a whole.

The team has high expectations every season, and a 13th-place finish at the national tournament did not meet those goals.

“We want to be competing for the Big Ten Championship, and we want to be in the top 10 in the country or higher every year. That’s what our expectations are every year,” Heffernan said.

The wrestling started its season on a high note with nine titles at the Loras Open, and then followed it up with six straight dual meet victories.

Illinois got its first taste of defeat at Madison Square Garden when it fell to Cornell in a close 15-18 dual. Even though the team lost, Delgado was named Outstanding Wrestler of the Grapple in the Garden event, and foreshadowed his national title match by defeating No. 2 Nahshon Garrett by a score of 6-2.

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After the Cornell loss, the team would go on to lose its next four dual meets, which included a 31-3 defeat at the hands of eventual national champion Penn State. Heffernan attributed the losses to several injuries the lineup suffered throughout the season and mistakes made by the young roster.

The Illini bounced back and finished the regular season with two consecutive victories over Purdue and Northwestern. Against the Wildcats, senior Tony Dallago etched his name into Illinois record books in his final home dual meet by becoming the school’s career pins leader.

Illinois would go on to a sixth-place finish at the Big Ten tournament, where Delgado captured his second Big Ten title over rival Nico Megaludis.

At the national tournament, the Illini moved six wrestlers into the second round, but Delgado was the only one to move past the second round en route to his championship. In the consolation bracket, Dallago and senior Mario Gonzalez were eliminated one round shy of earning their first All-American honors.

In the national title match, Delgado scrambled out of tight situations against Garrett and attacked at the right time to win his second national title. Delgado will return for his senior season, and he will be looking to become Illinois’ first three-time national champion.

Delgado will be a senior leader for the team next season, and even though he isn’t outspoken, Heffernan believes the young team can learn a lot from the two-time national champion.

“He is not a very vocal kid, but I think he is more of an example-setter,” Heffernan said. “Just the way he approaches the sport and his toughness are really good examples for our younger guys.”

Illinois will once again have a young lineup next year, but Heffernan has high expectations for redshirt freshmen Isiah Martinez and Brooks Black. Martinez accumulated a 13-2 record in his true freshman season and placed fourth at the Midlands Tournament.

Heffernan believes Martinez, along with Zane Richards, Zac Brunson and Jackson Morse, can make the jump to All-America status next season.

With the talent on the team, Heffernan expects the Illini to have even more success and possibly join the ranks of wrestling powerhouses like Penn State and Minnesota.

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