Wrestling kicks off season Saturday

Daily Illini File Photo

Daily Illini File Photo

By Jon Gluskin

The Illinois men’s basketball team won’t be the only top-10 team kicking off its season this weekend.

The wrestling team will have its annual wrestle-offs on Saturday at Huff Hall, featuring five All-Americans from last year, eight NCAA qualifiers and seven returning starters. There will be 10 matches based on weight class.

“What we do the wrestle-offs for is mainly to get the guys out in front of the crowd, to get the nervous energy out and to kind of simulate what they’re going to go through for the real season,” said head coach Mark Johnson.

Junior Alex Tirapelle will be competing in the 157-pound weight match against senior Mike Boyd. Tirapelle is coming off of a season in which he was an All-American and the Big Ten Wrestler of the Year.

“You try and treat it just like any other match, but obviously it’s a little bit different,” Tirapelle said. “It’s the first real competition of the season. Yes, it’s guys you wrestle with every day, but it’s the first time you’re out in front of a crowd. You’ve got a referee, and it’s an actual mat and scoring situations. It’s a little bit more intense.”

Senior Mark Jayne is another All-American looking to get off to a hot start on Saturday. He will compete in the 133-pound match against redshirt freshman Ryan Klinger.

“We have (a) pretty solid team, so it (will) be good to see where we’re at right now, what our strengths and weaknesses are,” Jayne said. “And after we’re done with the wrestle-offs, we can work on whatever we need to, and prep ourselves for our first tournament, and sort of find our starting line-up.”

Junior Kyle Ott will wrestle redshirt freshman Gabe Flores in the 125-pound match, in what is billed as one of the highlights of the wrestle-offs. Ott was an NCAA finalist last season, and Flores is one of the top recruits in his class.

The other matchups are: sophomore Michael Martin vs. sophomore Cassio Pero (141-pound), junior Cal Ferry vs. redshirt freshman Dan Zeman (149), sophomore Donny Reynolds vs. senior Anthony Castillo (165), junior Pete Friedl vs. sophomore Matt Winterhalter (174), senior Brian Glynn vs. sophomore Matt Harding (184), junior Tyrone Byrd vs. sophomore Matt Weight (197) and sophomore Mike Behnke vs. junior Matt Fletcher in the heavyweight match.

“Because we’re so deep, you mentally have to get ready for this because you can’t overlook guys on our own team, because we’re so good,” Johnson said. “So even our front-line guys have to watch it; otherwise, there will be an upset.

“We’ve had upsets every year where the returning starter or somebody like that that’s a returning NCAA qualifier gets beat. So guys know they have to mentally prepare for this. It’s not like an intra squad basketball game where they go out there and they kind of know the routine. This counts.”

Along with helping to set the roster, Jayne is looking to benefit from the wrestle-offs in other ways. He said it helps having competed in a real competitive match, as well as showing how well-conditioned you are, because you’re working harder in competitions than you do in practice.

“It’s good to have a real match under your belt for getting under real serious competition,” Jayne said. “You see how well-conditioned you are because you always go a little harder than you do in practice. It’s natural.”

The events start at 11 a.m. and admission is free.

Tirapelle is ready for the season to get underway.

“I’m pretty excited,” Tirapelle said. “I hope the rest of our team is too. We’ve been practicing for quite a while and wrestling isn’t a very fun sport if you’re not competing.”