Illinois wrestling’s Isaiah Martinez wins “Illini of the Year”

By Ethan Swanson

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sat down during its last meeting of the year and voted on the moment in the Illini sports calender that was the most noteworthy.

On Jan. 23, No. 4 Illinois hosted No. 12 Nebraska at Huff Hall for a Friday night Big Ten wrestling matchup.

Illinois was fresh off a grueling road trip just a weekend prior, facing the top-two teams in the nation, Iowa and Minnesota, in just three days. The Illini lost both bouts, the latter loss of the weekend a crushing 20-19 defeat at the hands of No. 1 Minnesota. As a result, the Huskers upset the Illini 22-9 at homemp.

“We were emotionally hungover,” head coach Jim Heffernanmp said. “It wasn’t as much what they did as much as it was what we didn’t do. There was a lack of hustle.”

With its third consecutive loss and two-time defending national champion Jesse Delgado out indefinitely with a torn labrum, Illinois’ season seemed to be teetering in the wrong direction. However, the team’s struggles only allowed the Illini’s lone star through that point in the season to shine even brighter: freshman Isaiah Martinezmp.

Martinez was undefeated and had won both the Roadrunner Open and Midland Championships entering the matchup with Nebraskamp. Although the freshman was the No. 3 wrestler at 157 pounds, he was unproven at the time and was yet to justify his ranking.

“I love the sport; I love the challenge,” Martinez said. “When I got to college, I started paying attention to who was No. 1 and ranked highly. Seeing those guys, I thought to myself: ‘I work just as hard as they do, so why can’t I be the No. 1 guy?’”

The freshman was slated to face No. 4 James Green, a three-time All-American and by far the toughest opponent Martinez had faced all yearmp.

When the two took the mat, team scores became irrelevant. The only thing that mattered to the Illini faithful was seeing if this kid was for real.

And he was.

Martinez never let Green out of his grasp and had the Husker on his back for the majority of the match. Although it was only a 2-0 margin of victory, his lowest of the season, it was clear Martinez had control the entire match. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the undefeated freshman flexed his muscles to an electrified Illini crowd.

Illinois wrestling had found its next superstar.

“Our skills were pretty even. After we figured that out, it came down to toughness,” Martinez said. “Who had the better lungs, who was willing to push himself. That’s what I train for.”

After the Nebraska meet, the team rallied behind Martinez’s success and won their next five meets, but the freshman himself was the real story of the seasonmp.

Martinez finished the season 35-0, becoming only the third wrestler in Illinois history to compete an undefeated season and the first freshman to complete an undefeated season since Iowa’s Cael Sanderson in 1999mp. Of his 35 wins, 24 came by major decision or greater, including an NCAA Division I leading 11 technical fallsmp.

Martinez cruised through the Big Ten Championships as the No. 1 seed and made quick work of Minnesota’s No. 2 Dylan Ness 15-2mp. The victory finally earned him the No. 1 overall ranking in the country he had been looking for all season.

“The Big Ten is the best conference for wrestling, and there’s a lot of pride that goes along with running the gauntlet in the Big Ten,” Martinez said. “Going through that rigorous schedule prepared me for the grind of the national tournament.”

At the NCAA championships in St. Louis, Martinez dazzled once again.

Martinez marched his way through the 157-pound bracket, only trailing for less than 45 seconds the entire tournament — to his old foe James Green in the semi-finalsmp.

The freshman returned to his dominant form in the championship match, handling Cornell’s Brian Realbuto with ease in a 10-2 win — a scene where Martinez once again flexed his biceps and rose his fist in the air victorious for the 35th-straight timemp.

“In November, Isaiah told me he was going to win the national championship,” Heffernan said. “All freshman talk when they get to college, but he was the only kid I ever actually believed.”

After winning it all, still more accolades began to pile up for Martinez. He was unanimously named Big Ten and InterMat Wrestling Freshman of the Year following the NCAA finalmp. He was also named one of four finalists for the 2015 WIN Magazine/Culture House Dan Hodge Trophy, wrestling’s equivalent to the Heisman. Last week, Martinez won his final award by being named Amateur Wrestling News Rookie of the Yearmp.

“As far as I look at it, he’s only going to get more dominant,” assistant coach Mark Perry said. “The upside that he has is unbelievable. He still has a lot of areas where he can improve. As long as he’s thinking that way, I think the winning and dominance will continue.”

“Winning the national champion was a dream my dad and I have had ever since I got on campus,” Martinez added. “But I know I can get more out of myself. I’m already ready to do undefeated and win it again next year.”

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