Illini wrestling struggle in home dual Saturday

By Ethan Swanson

The weekend following Thanksgiving typically marks the beginning of Christmas festivities, but there wasn’t much holiday cheer to be found in Huff Hall Saturday. The No. 9-ranked Illinois wrestling team suffered its first dual meet loss of the season, upset 24-15 by No. 18 Lehigh.

Lehigh is the most talented squad the Illini have faced in a dual meet this season, boasting a starting lineup with multiple nationally-ranked individual wrestlers. Illinois head coach Jim Heffernan was well aware his team would be tested on the mats at every weight class.

“They’re a talented, well-coached bunch,” Heffernan said. “We knew coming in we’d have to wake up and start doing things differently if we wanted to win.”

Injuries and a sluggish start doomed a talented Illini squad from the beginning.

The meet started with a heavyweight bout featuring the Illini’s Brooks Black and Lehigh’s Douglas Vollaro. After the third period, the match was knotted up at one point apiece, but Vollaro registered a takedown in overtime and ultimately defeated Black 3-1.

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For the second straight meet, three-time All-American Jesse Delgado did not participate due to an undisclosed injury, forcing the Illini to forfeit the 125 pound match.

“Jesse is practicing and rehabbing like we want him to,” Heffernan said. “Jesse is a special kid, and he’s a smart kid. We just don’t want to take any chances this early in the season.”

After Dominic Olivieri lost a 6-3 decision to fifth-ranked Mason Beckman at 133 pounds and at 141 pounds, Steven Rodrigues found himself pinned beneath Lehigh’s Randy Cruz just 90 seconds into the match, Illinois faced a 18-0 deficit just halfway through the meet.

“You just can’t find yourself on your back in a meet like this,” Hefferna said. “We started too slow, we can’t wait until the third period to score.”

Luckily, a surge from the Illini middleweights made the meet interesting. Kyle Langenderfer registered the first win for the Illini, besting Lehigh’s Drew Longo in a 17-7 major decision. Shortly after, sixth-ranked and undefeated Isiah Martinez scored a 25-9 technical fall against William Switzer. A pair of nationally ranked upperclassmen in Jackson Morse and Zac Brunson soon followed Martinez’s victory with two minor decision wins of their own to bring the team scores to 18-15.

Illinois’ 15 unanswered points ultimately were in vain. The early 18-point hole proved to be just too much to overcome as Illini Nikko Reyes and Jeff Koepke lost the final two matches of the day by a combined total of two points.

“Those were very winnable matches,” Heffernan said. “We just couldn’t finish and find a way to win.”

Despite losing the meet and bringing an end to Illinois’ winning streak, coach Heffernan acknowledged the importance of wrestling a quality opponent early in the season, serving as a transition into the Big Ten season.

“It’s important to wrestle good teams this early,” Heffernan said. “It’s a good measuring stick for where we’re at mentally and physically. It’s also a measuring stick for trainers, it shows what we need to do to have success moving forward.”

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