Senior Illinois wrestler leaves his mark

Ed Thomson

Ed Thomson

By Jon Gluskin

The look on his face tells it all. He came here to get the job done, and he’s going to do it. The wrestler’s face is all intensity. He’s ready. It’s game-time.

Actually – it’s only a photo shoot, but he radiates intensity as if he was ready to take down an opponent.

Meet Mark Jayne.

He stands only 5’5″ and competes in the 133-pound weight class, but his impact on the Illinois wrestling team is much larger than his compact frame.

The senior is a big reason why the Illini are 11-1 this season, atop the Big Ten standings and ranked No. 2 in the nation.

And to think, when he entered the University about three and a half years ago, he lost his first match as a true freshman, the wrestle-offs, and ended up not starting at 133 that year.

Things have changed a lot since those days.

Born on March 26, 1981 in Elyria, Ohio, Jayne started competing when he was only five.

“Wrestling has basically been my life,” Jayne said. “My dad and brother were into wrestling since I was born basically. They really got me involved in it and it just went from there. My dad was the high school and a youth coach, and I used to tag along to practices and one day I started joining the group.”

Jayne was a three-time Ohio state champion at St. Edward High School. His team won the state championships four times and the national championship twice.

When it was time for college, Jayne saw Illinois as the best fit.

“I took all my visits and I just weighed all the pros and cons and everything, and overall thought this was the best place for me,” Jayne said. “I thought it had the best coaches in the country, good academics, a team that’s headed in the right winning direction and a little connection with Coach Heffernan.”

Jim Heffernan also wrestled at St. Edward when he was in high school, and his younger brother was Jayne’s high school coach.

Despite losing that wrestle-off his true freshman season, Jayne still managed to go 16-4 with three falls, tying all freshmen for tops in the nation.

Redshirt-freshman year Jayne competed in both 133 and 141-pound matches. He had more success with the former, going 14-7, while finishing 1-3 at the latter. While wrestling in his first career Big Ten Championship he went 0-2. He was named Academic All-Big Ten.

It was during his third season that he started making a name for himself. He once again was Academic All-Big Ten. He finished the season 28-12, with three falls and was an NCAA Championships qualifier, where he went 3-2 and fell just one match shy of becoming an All-American.

This would not be the last time Jayne would flirt with All-American status.

Last season, Jayne piled up achievements and honors by going 32-4 with two falls. He placed seventh at the NCAA Championships and was the Big Ten Champion at 133 pounds. He racked up his third Academic All-Big Ten award, while also being named Academic All-American.

This time Jayne didn’t fall short of being named All-American.

So far in his final season, Jayne has been nothing short of dominant. With the exception of one loss against No. 5 Mack Reiter of Minnesota at the National Duals, where Jayne was battling both injury and sickness, his season has been flawless.

His intensity and competitive nature show what has brought Jayne to this elite level.

“Just working on your weaknesses before, during and after practice, (and) wrestling tough in the practice room is the biggest thing you can do as a wrestler,” Jayne said. “You get better technique-wise and tougher mentally, which is a really huge thing in wrestling.”

Jayne is 20-1 on the season and ranked No. 4 in the nation. He’s only five wins shy of the prestigious 100 win mark for his career, at 95-27, with 14 falls. Jayne also won the Midlands Tournament title.

“So far things are going really well for both the team and myself,” Jayne said. “I mean we’ve done some things we are proud of – we know we’re not where we need to be yet as a team or individually – we’re just looking to make ourselves peak for Nationals and be ready for that.”

Illinois head coach Mark Johnson said he has seen improvement every year, which has taken Jayne to the level he is at today.

“He’s very coachable; he listens to you, and he tries to cut down on his mistakes,” Johnson said. “He’s always had great offense. What he’s done is really cut down on his mistakes defensively. He’s made himself a national championship contender, which he was last year. He’s had a great couple of years here and we just hope he can cap it off with a national championship.”

As a senior, Jayne has stepped up his leadership this season. Johnson said Jayne is a quiet leader who earns respect through hard work.

Despite Jayne’s intensity and ferociousness, he still manages to have some fun with the team.

“Mark Jayne is kind of our dry sense of humor guy,” Johnson said. “I’ll talk to the team and then 30 seconds later he’s got a wisecrack.”

During Johnson’s 12 years at Illinois, he has turned the program into a powerhouse. Since 1995, he has had eight teams finish in the Top-10 and seven NCAA Individual Champions. He has coached many talented wrestlers. As far as toughness goes, Johnson said Jayne’s up there with the best of them.

“He is as tough a wrestler as I’ve coached,” Johnson said. “I mean hard-nosed tough. Both him and his roommate Brian Glynn (senior, 184), when you think about toughness, both of them come to mind.

“A good example is this past weekend where Mark Jayne was sick, he had turf toe, he didn’t practice all week – and there wasn’t a question, I don’t think, in his mind that he was going to compete for us in the match Friday.”

Just as Johnson has all positive things to say about his wrestler, Jayne has all good things to say about his coaching staff.

“They’re all really supportive of you,” Jayne said. “They’re looking to get the best out of each individual wrestler.”

With his collegiate career nearing its end, Jayne’s goals are being an NCAA Champion and having his team finish top-two. Both seem to be within Jayne’s grasp, especially with his motivational tools.

“I love winning,” Jayne said. “I hate losing – it’s just a bad feeling. I just like going out there and breaking the guys. Picking it up even more and seeing it in their eyes that they broke.”

After graduation, Jayne wants to use his kinesiology degree and become a health and physical education teacher. It should be no shock that he also wants to coach high school wrestling. He said he might eventually want to become an athletic director or a sports psychologist.

His academic awards show that Jayne has mastered both components of the student-athlete.

“He’s a kid that’s a very good student,” Johnson said. “He’s very serious about school.”

Jayne is not sure if his wrestling career is going to be over or not.

“That’s still up in the air,” Jayne said. “I’ll decide that after I’m done with my collegiate career. There’s a good possibility that I’ll go Greco (Roman) or freestyle. Maybe even go back into Judo.”

The photo shoot is now over and Jayne’s facial expressions remain the same. He still looks like he’s ready to take down an opponent at any second. It’s the face of a competitor.

His shoes lie in the middle of the mat. Come mid-March, it will be time for the symbolism to come true and Jayne’s run at Illinois to be over. Jayne has visions of a storybook ending.

“It’s the finals at (the) NCAA’s in St. Louis,” Jayne said. “The third period comes, maybe I’m down a few points. My opponent’s a little tired. I pick up my pace a little more. I get a few takedowns, come out with the win. The crowd’s behind me. People go nuts a little bit celebrating.”