Illinois wrestle-offs determine starters for upcoming season

By Ethan Swanson

In its opening event of the season, Illinois wrestling established a tentative starting lineup and allowed the wrestlers to see their first action on the mats in a true competitive, match-like setting. The wrestle-offs were held Sunday afternoon in the wrestling room located on the top floor of Huff Hall.

The starting spots in question, at 157, 174 and 197 pounds, were all claimed over a series of hard-fought exhibition matches. Redshirt freshman Isaiah Martinez came out victorious in the 157 pound weight class, easily achieving the 15 point maximum in his match against fellow redshirt freshman Kyle Langenderfer. Redshirt sophomore Zac Brunson overcame a group of Illini at 174 pounds to remain the starter this season. Head coach Jim Heffernan noted that redshirt junior Jeff Koepke, who was a reserve at the weight in 2013-14, would see the most action at 197 this season. Koepke did not participate in a match Sunday.

Not all matches had such serious implications for the two competing. Some returning starters stepped onto the mat Sunday simply to better prepare for the upcoming season. Redshirt Junior Christopher Lopez beat redshirt freshman Brooks Black 3-1 in a heavyweight match Sunday. Two-time national champion and three-time All-American Jesse Delgado wrestled in a match for the first time since winning it all in Oklahoma City last spring. Delgado looked poised for another title as he defeated redshirt junior Dominic Olivieri with little difficulty, 15-6.

“I thought a couple guys were aggressive,” Heffernan said after the exhibition. “It’s a difficult thing when you’re competing against guys you train with everyday. It was good to get them out of the practice room and into a different situation.” 

Although Heffernan saw positives in his squad’s overall performance, he realized they still need to improve to be successful.

“I think we need to score more points,” Heffernan said. “We need to be more aggressive. We’re still waiting for someone to really step up and become the true leader of our team.”

Illinois’ first meet with teams not wearing orange and blue will be the Illini Quad on Sunday at Huff Hall. There, the Illini will square off against Rider, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville and Northern Illinois. As the Illini start their true season, Heffernan said he has the same mindset regarding his team as always.

“They need to work on proving themselves to us and gaining our trust,” Heffernan said. “It’s a long time to March, but they better be excited. They should be excited.”

Ethan Swanson can be reached at erswans2@dailyillini.com or on Twitter @EthanSwanson88.