The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Illinois wrestling brings back experience as new season gets underway

Photo courtesy of Jenny Butler / Illini Athletics
Redshirt sophomore Danny Pucino against Purdue at the State Farm Center on Jan. 14.

Illinois wrestling heads into the 2023-24 season with high hopes as the No. 21 ranked team in the nation. Coming off a shaky 2022-23 season when the team went 6-7 overall in duals and 4-4 in Big Ten duals, Illinois is hungry for a bounce-back year with a more experienced group.

“I think these guys that have been on the team are just a little bit older, a little bit wiser,” said Isaiah Martinez, assistant coach. “Definitely, I see a lot more hunger in the room. (I’m) not saying there was no hunger in years past, but there’s really good energy right now in our room as we get started with the season.”

Illinois also has seven out of 10 starters returning from last season.

The returning starters include redshirt junior Lucas Byrd in the 133-pound division, redshirt sophomore Danny Pucino in the 141-pound division, redshirt sophomore Jake Harrier in the 149-pound division, redshirt senior Danny Braunagel in the 165-pound division, redshirt junior Edmund Ruth in the 174-pound division, redshirt sophomore Dylan Connell in the 184-pound division and redshirt senior Zac Braunagel in the 197-pound division.

Danny and Zac Braunagel are the most experienced members of the team this season, as both brothers enter their sixth season with the program. However, the experience among returning starters does not stop there.

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With the returning starters having 21 years of combined experience together at Illinois, one thing that the roster definitely boasts is team chemistry.

“I think itʼs super important to have great team chemistry,” Martinez said. “Wrestling is an individual sport, but it makes it a little bit easier to go out there and do your job when you know the other guys got your back. Youʼre not just out there alone. Youʼre representing your university (and) your teammates.”

Although seven starters are returning from last season, some will not be starting at the beginning of the season either because of injuries or, as in Zac Braunagel’s case, because of Olympic redshirt status.

An Olympic redshirt means that an athlete can take a year off from collegiate wrestling to train for the Olympic games without losing a year of NCAA eligibility.

Zac and Danny Braunagel, as well as Luke Luffman are all eligible for Olympic redshirt status for placing in the top eight at the April 2023 Senior U.S. Open. If they choose to accept their Olympic redshirt, they will not be eligible to compete in dual competitions for Illinois this season.

“Our 197 from last year, Zac Braunagel ended up making a world team in Greco for the United States,” Martinez said. “So, Zac showing that he can compete at the world level, make world teams, heʼs given this year to kind of prepare for that track instead of having to focus on collegiate wrestling, so he will solely focus on Greco-Roman wrestling.”

With Zac Braunagel most likely accepting an Olympic redshirt, that leaves his 197-pound weight class up for grabs. This has led to exciting competition between the wrestlers hoping to start the season for Illinois in the 197-pound division.

“So last week we had our wrestle-off,” Martinez said. “There were a couple of weights that were kind of up in the air for anybody who wanted to step up and kind of take their weight class. I think 197 was awesome to watch just guys be competitive with each other and still be great teammates. 197 was awesome to watch as a coach.”

The current favorite to start at the 197-pound division this season is Isaiah Pettigrew, who placed first at the team’s wrestle-offs last Sunday.

“Our 197-pounder, Isaiah Pettigrew has been doing great, he won his wrestle-off bracket in our wrestle-off,” Martinez said. “Heʼs shown some really good promise, so I’m excited to see him compete.”

Illinois wrestling hopes to transfer its preseason grit to the regular season which starts on Nov. 2 against Southern Illinois at the State Farm Center for what could be an exciting match as well as an opportunity for the team to show off its talent.

“We have a lot of talent on our team this year, some young guys and some upperclassmen,” Martinez said. “I think we have a great team around us. I know they could do some pretty special things.”


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