Wrestling gears up for season

By Jon Gluskin

The Illini wrestling team begins the season with only two higher-ranked opponents.

But unlike Ralph Nader, this team actually has a chance of surpassing the frontrunners.

On Nov. 21, the wrestling team will begin its national championship campaign at the Missouri Open after a strong 2003-2004 season.

The Illini enter the regular season ranked No. 3 in the nation. The team’s roster is filled with wrestlers with a plethora of achievements. The team boasts five returning All-Americans and four National competitors from last season.

On Saturday, the Illini competed in their annual wrestle-offs, where 10 intrasquad matches took place to help set the season roster. ÿ

“What (wrestle-offs) are good for is they point out mistakes,” said head coach Mark Johnson. “It gets rids of some of that nervous energy before you go into your first event because there’s definitely more pressure on you when you’re out there kind of by yourself – or like we were with two matches at a time.

“We had a lot of people there for an intrasquad meet, so it’s really good to prepare yourself to go over to Missouri,” Johnson said. “It points out some of your mental mistakes, some of your physical mistakes – something that we can go over as coaches.”

Eight returning starters won their wrestle-off matches.

One competitor who did not win his match was junior Tyrone Byrd, in the 197-pound competition. His match against sophomore Matt Weight was called off during the second period due to an eye injury suffered by Byrd. Byrd was forced to default, despite having the lead at the time of the cancellation. He is fine though, and has set high goals for both himself and his team and is in position to be the starter. He said he wants to be a national champion.

“I’d say that’s the goal of all 10 of the starters,” Byrd said. “Everybody there knows they’re capable of being All-American, and if you’re capable of being All-American, if your game’s on at Nationals, then you’re just as capable of being national champ.”

“I don’t mean to make it sound easy or anything, because by no means is it easy. All the cylinders have to be clicking at the same time. Obviously our goal as a team as well is to be national champs,” Byrd said.

Donny Reynolds is a sophomore coming off of an ACL injury suffered at the Junior World Championships at Istanbul, Turkey, in the summer of 2003. He is also aspiring for much success. He defeated senior Anthony Castillo over the weekend and looks to be in position to start for the Illini.

“I think what’s most encouraging is knowing that we can hang with (anyone),” Reynolds said. “There’s quite a few things that our team still needs to work on, still needs to pick up to get where we need to be. But I think we’re at a good pace right now and I think if we work hard, we can win a national championship.”

All-Americans junior Kyle Ott, senior Mark Jayne, junior Alex Tirapelle, junior Pete Friedl and senior Brian Glynn are all back for the Illini this year, along with returning starters sophomore Michael Martin, junior Cal Ferry and sophomore Mike Behnke. The five All-Americans are the most the Illini have ever had and tie for most in the nation with two-time defending national champion Oklahoma State.

“Not only do we have a good forefront, we have an outstanding freshman class behind these guys, that weren’t involved in the wrestle-offs,” Johnson said. “This is as deep and as good of a team as I’ve had on paper. And we’ve just got to keep making the individual improvements I’ve been talking about.”

Even with this strong, talented roster, Johnson is not just zeroing in on winning the national championship.

Instead, he is concerned with the process to get to that level.

“What we really focus on are individual goals,” Johnson said. “Improvement’s our key word … let’s get better from practice to practice, but especially from week to week. When we start competing and you make a mistake, whether you win or lose, whatever the mistakes are, that’s what we look at to make sure there’s improvement from week to week.”

Byrd said he does not feel added pressure because of the No. 3 ranking.

“If there’s any pressure, I’d say it’s from ourselves because of our expectations of ourselves,” Byrd said. “We all know that we’re good. There’s guys that won’t start this year that could possibly make a difference. Our expectations would be the only pressure. As far as the rankings go, they’re just numbers. Rankings come and go.”