Illinois wrestling face Rider, SIUE and NIU in home opener

Illinois+Zac+Brunson+wrestles+Michigans+Brian+Murphy+at+Huff+Hall%26nbsp%3Bon+Jan.+18%2C+2014%2C+the+last+time+the+Wolverines+and+the+Illini+met+on+the+mat.+Brunson%2C+now+a+senior%2C+will+not+wrestle+against+Michigan+on+Friday+night+in+Ann+Arbor%2C+and+several+freshmen+have+been+called+upon+to+take+his+place.

Illinois’ Zac Brunson wrestles Michigan’s Brian Murphy at Huff Hall on Jan. 18, 2014, the last time the Wolverines and the Illini met on the mat. Brunson, now a senior, will not wrestle against Michigan on Friday night in Ann Arbor, and several freshmen have been called upon to take his place.

By Ethan Swanson

The 2014-15 NCAA Wrestling Championships will be held this March in St. Louis, Missouri. For the Illinois wrestling team, the road to the arch in March begins in Champaign with a quad meet this Sunday at Huff Hall. The Illini will begin competition at 2 p.m. against Rider then take on in-state schools Southern Illinois-Edwardsville and Northern Illinois at 3:30 and 5 p.m. respectively.

Last season, Illinois wrestling began with the Loras Open in Dubuque, Iowa, where the Illini captured twelve top-three finishes, including nine first-place titles. Eight of those nine title-winners return this season. Head coach Jim Heffernan has called upon redshirt sophomore Zac Brunson to fill the spot left by Illinois all-time leader in career pins, Tony Dallago, who graduated in May. Brunson, who wrestled at 157 pounds for the Illini last season, realizes he has big shoes to fill but remains confident he can build off of Dallago’s success.  

“Tony definitely set a good path for the Illini at 174 pounds,” Brunson said. “I’m hoping to continue his streak and be a guy like him: go out there not just to win matches, but to get falls. I hope to have the success he had but even take it to another level and do things even he wasn’t able to do.”

After last Sunday’s wrestle-offs, Heffernan commented on the team’s young talent, especially praising redshirt freshman Isaiah Martinez, who earned a starting position this season at 157 pounds for his aggressive mentality on the mat. Sunday will be his first action as an Illini starter, but Martinez said he is ready to be a major contributor right from the start.

“The style of wrestling I am is really high-octane, a lot of offense. I’m not the type of guy that goes in there and tries to win by 3 or 4 points,” Martinez said. “My mentality: try to dominate, get on to a roll right away and build confidence for when you go against high-end teams.”

The highest expectations, however, are on the shoulders of senior Jesse Delgado, as he seeks his third-consecutive national title this season. With such high aspirations for March, Delgado talked about what to concentrate on early in the season.

“You always have tasks ahead of you, you have someone you have to focus on for the week, someone to prepare for,” said Delgado. “At the same time, you have in the back of your head that it only matters if you win in March, so it’s not too much pressure right now.”

InterMat’s preseason NCAA team wrestling rankings have Illinois at No. 11. Coach Heffernan and his team are both looking to prove that this squad deserves the national recognition they’ve been granted so far this season. Brunson reiterated that Sunday will set the tone for the rest of the season.

“On paper, we’re a lot better than these teams,” Brunson said. “We need to go out to make a point of beating these teams 10-0, not giving up a point, so we set a standard for our wrestling at a high level, so when we do start picking up and getting into the Big Ten schedule, we’re on a roll.”

Ethan can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @EthanSwanson88.