Illinois wrestling showed its potential in Delgado’s return

By Ethan Swanson

The Illinois wrestling team showed how strong its full, healthy starting lineup could be when the Illini trumped Maryland and Purdue over the weekend. The Illini won both their weekend meets for the first time in three weeks. With defending national champion Jesse Delgado in the starting lineup, Illinois is 4-0 and finally beginning to wrestle at its full potential.

Maryland (5-11, 0-5 Big Ten) came to Huff Hall on Friday looking to pull off the upset, just as Nebraska had done a week earlier. But the Illini ensured the Terrapins wouldn’t find their first Big Ten win in Champaign by taking nine of 10 matches en route to a 32-3 win. The first two matchups of the night only lasted a total of four periods as freshman Isaiah Martinez and senior Jackson Morse both registered wins by technical fall in the second period of their respective matches to give Illinois a 10-0 lead. The only points Maryland scored were in the final match, when Terrapin Ben Dorsay recorded a takedown on freshman Kyle Langenderfer late in the third period to win the 149-pound bout 3-2 after trailing Langenderfer for the first two periods.

In his first match since Nov. 9, Delgado came away with a narrow 3-2 victory over Maryland’s Josh Polacek. After the meet, Delgado expressed discontent with his performance, but understood the two-month lay-off would take time to recover from.

“I just wanted to get a feel for what I need to do different,” Delgado said. “We just need to go back and figure things out. The goals don’t change, If I wasn’t going to try to win, then I wouldn’t wrestle.”

Head coach Jim Heffernan knew Delgado was not pleased with his showing Friday, but was optimistic about his performance and health moving forward.

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“He was just tentative, that’s all. He was just figuring some things out,” Heffernan said. “The kid’s in great shape, I’m not concerned about his conditioning. He just has to get a little bit sharper, I know he’s not really happy with the way he competed, but he’ll get it fixed.”

The most impressive win of the night came from an Illini member who is relatively unknown: freshman Brooks Black. Black got the start Friday at heavyweight, a weight that Black has shared with junior Chris Lopez all season. In his match, Black wrestled Maryland’s only nationally ranked individual, Spencer Myers, who also started at defensive end for Maryland’s football team. Although considered a serious underdog, Black defeated Myers 2-1 in double overtime by escaping a potential takedown as time ran out.

“He was still in football shape,” Black said. “I kept the pressure on him, I got him tired and worn out, I could feel it. Going into overtime, I knew I was going to win.”

Black and the Illini took their momentum to West Lafayette on Sunday to take on a tougher Purdue squad, where they went on to win their third conference meet in a row, 21-9. Despite facing a conference rival on the road, the Illini captured seven of 10 matches. Delgado rebounded from his performance Friday by registering takedown on his way to a 3-1 victory over Purdue’s Luke Welch, while Black followed up Friday’s upset by tallying another victory over Boilermaker Gelen Robinson 2-0.

With Martinez also winning Sunday to bring his season record to 24-0, top to bottom, Illinois is poised to do damage in the postseason. With only one conference dual left on the schedule against Wisconsin on Feb. 8, Heffernan is satisfied with his team’s progression through the regular season so far, but stressed that as the team enters February, they still aren’t fully ready for March.

“We still have over a month to go until the Big Tens,” Heffernan said. “I hope we haven’t peaked yet. I think we’re getting better, wrestling better and hustling. There’s still things we can improve on, and we have time to learn.”

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