Illinois Wrestling takes 12th at NCAA Championships, Martinez wins title

By Ethan Swanson

Despite finishing 12th Saturday night at the NCAA Championships in St. Louis, the Illinois wrestling team managed to make history on a national level.

After a major decision 10-2 victory over Cornell’s Brian Realbuto, the Illini’s redshirt freshman Isaiah Martinez became the first freshman to finish an undefeated season since Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson accomplished the feat during the 1998-1999 season.

“He has a commitment level I’ve never seen before,” said Jim Heffernan, Illinois wrestling head coach. “He told me he was going to win the national championship in November after our first meet. Young guys and recruits always have lofty goals for the future, but he was the only one I actually believed.”

Martinez racked up a total of 35 wins this season, which is tied for 11th best in school history for single-season wins. Of those 35 wins, 24 came by major decision or greater, including an NCAA Division I leading 11 technical falls. He is the first Illini wrestler to go unbeaten since Matt Lackey did it in 2003 under former coach Mark Johnson.

“The coaches have told me all season how good I could be if I put in the time and effort and just believed in myself,” Martinez added. “My dad and I have had this dream for a long time. I can’t believe it happened my freshman year.”

For the third-consecutive season the Illini claimed a national champion – They have placed a wrestler on the All-American list for 24 straight seasons. But, Martinez wasn’t the only Illini member to earn All-America honors.

Senior Jackson Morse had the best NCAA finish of his career, placing fourth at 165 pounds.

After losing 6-18 to Oklahoma State’s eventual national champion Alex Dieringer in the championship quarterfinals, Morse rolled to three-straight wins in the consolation bracket. His 6-0 victory over North Carolina’s Ethan Ramos locked up his All-American status and earned him a spot in the third-place match, where he was ultimately pinned by Ohio State’s Bo Jordan.

Morse had never been named an All-American prior to this season. His 5-2 record at nationals ends his career with an overall record of 106-47, which is tied for 16th on Illinois’ list of most career wins. His 20 career pins ranks 10th all-time.

“This was a great way for Jackson to go out,” Heffernan said. “He’s the perfect example of what hard work and doing the right things can do for a guy’s career. He deserves everything that he’s accomplished.”

Morse wasn’t the only Illinois wrestler to end his career Saturday. But he was the only one to end on a high note.

Senior Jesse Delgado was forced to end his quest to become Illinois’ first-ever four-time All-American and three-time national champion on just the second day of competition.

In the second round of the 125-pound championship bracket, Delgado lost a 4-2 match against American University’s David Terao, ending his three-peat title aspirations. In his first match of the consolation bracket, Delgado tore his hamstring two minutes and 52 seconds into competition, forcing him to forfeit the match to Virginia’s Nick Herrmann.

“You just have to shake your head at something like that,” Heffernan said. “He already had the guts to come back from a debilitating shoulder injury, then he has to end a historic career with another gruesome injury—one he’ll probably have to have surgery on.”

Delgado finishes his career as a former back-to-back national champion, two-time Big Ten Champion and three-time All-American. His 101 career wins are the 22nd-most in school history and his career win percentage of .856 (101-17) ranks fifth all-time.

“He’s had the best career in Illinois history,” Heffernan said. “All I could say to him was that I was proud of him, for everything he’s done for this program.”

Although the Illini had two of their most decorated wrestlers see their last action in an Illini singlet, the majority of the team is just starting to establish itself. Of the ten starters this season, only three were upperclassmen. 

“I’m pumped for these next few seasons of wrestling,” Martinez said. “I’m glad (the team is) starting to get results and see what it takes to compete at high level, we’re going to have a good run.”

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