Illinois wrestling’s Delgado will go for three-peat at nationals

Jesse+Delgado+defeats+Kent+State%E2%80%99s+Edilberto+Vinas+3-0.+Delgado+is+fighting+for+his+third+NCAA+championship.

Jesse Delgado defeats Kent State’s Edilberto Vinas 3-0. Delgado is fighting for his third NCAA championship.

By Ethan Swanson

The Illinois wrestling team’s season has been a coming-out party for freshman Isaiah Martinez. The attention is well-deserved: undefeated, a Big Ten champion, No. 1 national ranking, NCAA leader in technical falls — all accomplishments that will most likely lead to Martinez making history this weekend in St. Louis at the National Championships.

With all the buzz about the freshman, Illini fans may have taken their eyes off of one of the most historic runs in Illinois and NCAA wrestling history: senior Jesse Delgado’s quest for his third-consecutive NCAA championship.  

“Winning one is difficult enough,” assistant head coach Mark Perry said. “To repeat, or even three-peat, you have to put together a special run. If you’re that good and you’re on your ‘A’ game, it can and should be done by those types of guys.”

Delgado’s first two national titles came with little opposition. After receiving All-American honors his freshman year by placing third at the Big Ten Championships and seventh at nationals, Delgado went on to finish the 2012-13 season 27-3 and placed first at the conference championships at 125 pounds, earning him the 2013 Most Outstanding Wrestler of the Big Ten Championships Award. The then-sophomore went on to defeat Penn State’s Nico Megaludis 7-4 to claim his first national championship.

Last year, Delgado continued his national dominance, compiling a 30-2 record and repeating as Big Ten champion and securing his second-straight national title by taking down Cornell’s Nahshon Garrett in a tight 3-2 decision.

“The guy just knows how to win,” head coach Jim Heffernan said. “He’s knows how to perform on the big stage and is always mentally and emotionally keen in his preparation.”

“You can’t ever be satisfied,” Delgado added. “There are always things to work on. I’m always trying to find things I’m not the best at so I can work on them and keep evolving as a wrestler.”

This season, however, Delgado has spent more time in the training room than the practice room.

Delgado suffered a shoulder injury in the Illini’s home opener Nov.  9, which sidelined him for more than two months. Since returning to the starting lineup Jan. 30 in a home dual against Maryland, Delgado has struggled to return to championship form.

Delgado is 7-3 with one forfeit since his injury and his average margin of victory is less than four points per match.

“I’ve been trying to get a feel for what I need to do and figure things out,” Delgado said. “My goals don’t change, if I didn’t want to win, I wouldn’t wrestle.”

“He was just tentative when he came back,” Heffernan added. “The kid’s in great shape, he just needed to get a little sharper. I’m not worried.”

Winning the national championship after a shortened season is not impossible, and luckily, Delgado sees a man who has accomplished the feat every day at practice.

During the 2007-08 season, then 165-pound Iowa starter Mark Perry underwent arthroscopic surgery in his right knee in January of 2008, but came back to win the national title. Now Illinois’ assistant head coach, Perry has mentored Delgado through his recovery process and shared his experiences coming back from injury.

“There was an incident where I had to have major reconstructive surgery just two months before the season ended,” Perry said. “You just have to find a way to deal with it. If things aren’t going your way, you have to make them go your way.”

Delgado enters this year’s NCAA tournament unseeded at his weight class, meaning this year’s road to a championship will be his toughest by far. If he can pull off the improbable run, he will become the first Illini wrestler to ever three-peat and the second wrestler behind Ohio State’s Logan Stieber to accomplish the feat in the last two seasons.

At this time of year, everyone is 0-0. What an individual has accomplished, or failed to accomplish, is irrelevant. It just takes five wins in three days to win a national title, and in this setting, both Heffernan and Delgado like the odds.

“He qualified and that’s all that really matters,” Heffernan said. “He’s wrestled the best he had all season at the Big Ten’s, we’ll just have to see what happens.”

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@EthanSwanson88