Illinois wrestling splits Big Ten weekend


Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez slams his opponent to the ground during the match versus Nebraska at Huff Hall on Friday. The Illini lost 22-9 and were 1-1 on the weekend.

By Ethan Swanson

Two meets, two cities and two very different Illini wrestling teams were the story over the weekend. Going 1-1 against two formidable conference opponents, Illinois (9-4) suffered from a sluggish start at home against Nebraska (7-1) on Friday, then came back Sunday with a dominant performance against Northwestern (9-6) in Evanston, Illinois.

Prior to Friday, Illinois was coming off a grueling Big Ten road trip where the team recorded two consecutive losses against Iowa and Minnesota, the top-two teams in the nation.

The Illini appeared emotionally drained and physically fatigued against a talented Cornhusker squad despite having four days of rest prior to the bout with Nebraska, even with the wrestlers having stressed the importance of avoiding a three-meet losing streak.

“It looked like they were emotionally hungover from last weekend,” head coach Jim Heffernan said. “It’s a lack of hustle. They weren’t ready to go, they weren’t ready to fight. We didn’t compete very hard.”

Friday’s meet began with a 197-pound matchup with Illini grappler Jeff Koepke and Nebraska’s Aaron Studebaker. After bringing a 3-1 lead into the third period, Koepke surrendered three unanswered points to Studebaker. He ultimately lost the match 4-3, foreshadowing the central theme of the rest of the meet. In seven of the 10 matches, the Illini failed to score a point in the final period. Three of those seven wrestlers either led or were tied with their opponent entering the third period. Only able to claim victory in three matches, the Illini fell to the No. 12 Cornhuskers 22-9.

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    Of Friday’s three wins by Zane Richards, Jackson Morse and Isaiah Martinez, Martinez’s was perhaps the most significant of the night. The freshman, ranked third nationally at 157 pounds, squared off against the fourth-ranked 157-pound James Green. Although seeming to control the match from start to finish, Martinez only accomplished a 1-0 victory over Green, bringing his record to 21-0 overall.

    “I’ve waited all my freshman year to get that job done,” Martinez said. “Wrestling guys that are three-time All-Americans, guys who will be competing for national titles, and then I see myself there wrestling those guys. It’s surreal.”

    Sunday’s results were better for the Illini. Facing the No. 10 Wildcats on the road in the midst of a three-meet conference losing streak, the in-state rivalry was being edged into the “must win” category. With national and conference standings on the line, the Illini came out firing.

    Flipping the script from Friday, Dominic Olivieri gave the Illini the first points of the meet with a 5-2 win over Garrison White.

    “Dominic did a great job setting the tone for us,” Heffernan said. “He was aggressive and wrestling offensively. He really did a fantastic job.”

    After jumping out to a 10-0 lead after Steven Rodrigues’ 8-6 win over Northwestern’s Jameston Oster at 141 pounds, Illinois never seemed to look back. In a 31-9 team win, the Illini captured seven of the 10 matches. Martinez once again won in impressive fashion, pinning Wildcat Ben Sullivan in the 2nd period after leading the match 14-3.

    “The guys wrestled with better energy and emotion today,” Heffernan said. “I was much more pleased with our effort and fire.”

    Next week the Illini host Maryland and the Terrapins are one of the only Big Ten teams not ranked nationally. At this point in the season, conference wins are hard to come by. Heffernan said that he and his team will have to look at themselves to right the ship for the remainder of the season.

    “It’s the decisions we make,” Heffernan said. “It’s not about anyone else, it’s about us.”

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