Illini wrestling grapplers lose their first Big Ten duals on the road

By Ethan Swanson

This past weekend for Illinois wrestling team was as simple as 1-2-3: one team, against the top-two teams nationally, in just three days. Last Friday marked the beginning of a Big Ten weekend on the road for the Illini featuring the second-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes and first-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers.

The Illini entered Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday ranked No. 4 according to WIN Magazine’s power index and undefeated in Big Ten competition. However, the Illini would not leave with the same credentials. No. 2 Iowa handed Illinois its first Big Ten defeat in a 25-12 loss.

Through the first six matches Friday, Illinois led Iowa 12-10. After dropping the 125-pound match by a major decision, sophomore Zane Richards ignited Illinois’s scoring run with a 6-5 victory over Iowa’s fifth-ranked individual Cory Clark. Illinois’ middle-weight wrestlers Isiah Martinez and Jackson Morse soon followed with victories by technical fall and major decision, respectively.

“We’ve seen things from Isiah on the mat this year that we’ve never seen from a freshman before,” head coach Jim Heffernan said. “As for Jackson, he’s a senior. He knows this is it for him and he’s figured out what he needs to do to win by now.”

After Morse’s win at 165 pounds, the Illini couldn’t claim another victory. Illinois grapplers found themselves on the wrong end of a series of close matches that ultimately cost them the meet. Sophomore Zac Brunson surrendered a pin late in the 174-pound bout while junior Jeff Koepke and freshman Brooks Black both suffered defeats by top-five nationally ranked individuals by a combined total of six points.

“We had opportunities to win almost every match, but we just couldn’t finish,” Heffernan said.

With only a day for travel, the Illini found themselves in hostile territory again on Sunday, this time against the undefeated, No. 1-ranked Golden Gophers. In front of a nearly sold-out crowd in Minneapolis, Illinois suffered its first consecutive loss of the season in a 20-19 match characterized by a late Illini rally that fell short of accomplishing a major upset.

In the first eight matches of the meet, Morse’s major decision victory over Minnesota’s 19th-ranked individual Nick Wanzek and junior Dominic Olivieri’s major decision over Jordan Bremer constituted all of Illini’s points. Zane Richards suffered a crushing overtime defeat after leading first-ranked individual Chris Dardanes 7-1 in the second period.

“Zane was up big and had control of that match,” Heffernan said. “He stopped being the aggressor and tried to just hold on the match. That let the guy get a few takedowns on him which sent it to overtime. That match was probably the deciding factor in the meet.”

Down 20-8 with only two matches remaining, Illinois once again called upon its middle-weights to make a run. Freshman Kyle Langenderfer pinned Minnesota’s Seth Lange in just 51 seconds to bring the score to 20-14 with Isaiah Martinez left to wrestle. Martinez tried furiously to get the pin against his Minnesota opponent, but his dominant performance and multiple takedowns led to a bitter-sweet technical fall win, only awarding Illinois five points and missing a draw with the No. 1 team in the country by just a point.   

Although Illinois finished the weekend 0-2, coach Heffernan still showed optimism in his team’s performance.

“It’s not easy facing top-five teams back to back on the road,” Heffernan said. “It’s difficult to mentally and emotionally prepare yourself for that level of competition on a daily basis, but this is the point of wrestling top-ranked guys in the same weekend. This is the way it’s going to be in March at nationals, consecutively wrestling great competition.”

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