Illinois wrestling sends full lineup to NCAAs


Illinois’ Jesse Delgado locks arms with Kent State’s Edilberto Vinas during the match at Huff Hall on February 15. The Illini won 38-0.

By Ethan Swanson

At the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, 330 wrestlers from across the country will come together at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis for the NCAA wrestling championship this weekend.

Ten of those wrestlers will be from Illinois, the first time the Illini will send their full starting lineup to the NCAA tournament since 2006. Illinois had nine grapplers earn automatic qualifier bids at the Big Ten Championships and sophomore Steven Rodrigues earned an at-large bid from the NCAA selection committee on March 11. The nine automatic qualifiers is the most the Illini have had since 2009, when they finished second at the Big Ten championships and eighth at the NCAA tournament.

Illinois enters this year’s national championships ranked sixth in the nation according to W.I.N. Magazine’s Tournament Power Index, but both the wrestlers and the coaches believe that the Illini may still be a bit overlooked as a serious team-championship contender.

“The team that’s going to win this year in St. Louis is going to have to do very well on the back side of the bracket,” assistant coach Mark Perry said. “If our guys can finish their last few matches as strong as possible, the individuals and the team have a great chance at doing very well.”

The Big Ten championships were indication of Illinois wrestlers’ ability to make a run in the consolation bracket. In Columbus, Ohio, at the conference tournament, nine Illinois wrestlers placed higher than their pre-seed. Un-seeded 149-pound freshman Kyle Langenderfer even went on to place third in his weight class after losing to the eventual Big Ten champion Jason Tsirtsis of Northwestern in the first round.

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    “We’re obviously a better tournament team than dual team,” Perry said. “Our whole motto this year has been about St. Louis and we believe we can compete with anyone. If you can put two guys in the finals, you’re in the title hunt.”

    Putting two wrestlers in the finals is a very realistic goal for the Illini this weekend.

    After winning the Big Ten title at 157 pounds and compiling a 30-0 record, freshman Isaiah Martinez has earned the No. 1 overall seed in his weight class and aims to be the last wrestler standing come Saturday’s final round.

    “After putting in work my redshirt year, finally getting into the action this season and now becoming the top guy going into nationals, it’s just been awesome,” Martinez said. “I look forward to having a really good tournament.”

    “Isaiah just keeps getting better with every match,” head coach Jim Heffernan added. “He knows what he needs to do to win.”

    All the excitement surrounding Martinez has seemed to overshadow the fact that senior Jesse Delgado with be attempting to claim his third-consecutive NCAA title and fourth All-American honor. If he succeeds, Delgado would be the first wrestler in Illinois history to accomplish both feats. Despite suffering a shoulder injury that shortened his season, both the coaches and Delgado believe he still has a legitimate chance for a three-peat.

    “The Big Ten tournament was good for Jesse,” Heffernan said. “He got to be in the tournament format and face good competition for the first time this season. He’s extremely well-conditioned and he’s starting to wrestle at his best.”

    “My goals haven’t changed,” Delgado added. “If I didn’t want to win, I just wouldn’t wrestle.”

    Zane Richards (No. 5), Jackson Morse (No. 9) and Zac Brunson (No.11) round out the list of Illini seeded for the opening round of the NCAA tournament. The rest of the Illinois wrestling team, including Delgado, will enter the championships unseeded. Despite having a difficult path ahead, the wrestlers and the coaches said they’re prepared for the challenge and plan on having individuals atop the podium.

    “They just have to believe,” Perry said. “If we focus on ourselves and do our part, we’ll be right there.”

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