Wrestling looks for Big Ten title

Fourth-ranked Pete Friedl (174) attempts to gain an advantage against Northwestern´s Jake Herbert at Illinois´ last home meet of the season, Feb. 17. The Illini won the meet 29-6 to break the single-season dual win record. Nick Kohout

Fourth-ranked Pete Friedl (174) attempts to gain an advantage against Northwestern´s Jake Herbert at Illinois´ last home meet of the season, Feb. 17. The Illini won the meet 29-6 to break the single-season dual win record. Nick Kohout

By Jon Gluskin

The No. 2 Illini wrestling team looks to do something this weekend it hasn’t accomplished since 1952: win a team Big Ten Championship.

After the record-setting regular season in which the Illini won 16 dual matches, a feat never reached before by Illinois, they head to Iowa City for the Big Ten Championships on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 26-27.

Never before has an Illini wrestling team finished the season ranked as high as No. 2, which it is in the USA Today/NWCA Coaches and W.I.N. Magazine polls. Illinois shared the regular season Big Ten title with No. 6 Michigan, a second-consecutive championship for the Illini.

Nine out of the 11 conference teams head into the Big Tens in the top 25, and four in the top 10 – Illinois, Michigan, No. 9 Iowa and No. 10 Wisconsin.

“The Big Ten conference is so good and so deep, that you can’t relax even in the preliminary matches,” said head coach Mark Johnson.

Illinois finished the regular season 16-1-1 and 7-0-1 in the Big Ten. Its only loss came Jan. 23 at the National Duals, where No. 1 Oklahoma State defeated the Illini 22-15. The lone tie came Feb. 5 against Big Ten foe Michigan, 17-17.

“You just kind of have go into it relaxed and confident that you did everything you could up to this point,” said No. 12 Anton Dietzen (149-pounds). “Personally, I don’t think that there’s anything else that I could have done this summer, this season, to get myself ready. That’s the way I think 10 guys on the team feel. I think everybody’s worked their butts off all season and they should just be confident and ready for it.”

Illinois goes into the Championships with four No. 1 seeds – No. 2 Kyle Ott (125), No. 5 Mark Jayne (133), No. 3 Pete Friedl (174) and No. 4 Brian Glynn – which is another school record. Friedl and Jayne both went undefeated in conference matches (8-0).

Glynn is in a familiar position. Last year he went into the Big Tens with the top seed, only to get upset in the first round. Because of this, he doesn’t think there’s much pressure on him.

“As far as people in my weight (class), we’re all so close that it (No. 1 seed) doesn’t mean that much,” Glynn said. “I think this year after being (the) No.1 seed last year, I’m kind of used to it so I don’t feel any pressure at all.”

Glynn will face intense competition, with four other opponents being ranked in the top 10 and three more ranked in the top 25.

The other six starters for Illinois also go into the Big Tens nationally ranked. No. 2 Alex Tirapelle (157), the defending Big Ten Champion, is a No. 2 seed. The finals could pit a showdown between Tirapelle and Michigan’s Ryan Bertin, the No. 1 seed after beating Tirapelle 3-2 during the Michigan Dual. Over the last three seasons, Bertin leads the series 4-3.

Tirapelle was the Big Ten Wrestler of the Year and Wrestler of the Championship.

Like Tirapelle, Jayne is also the defending Big Ten Champion.

“We both have had losses in conference this year, so there’s really not a lot of pressure on us,” Tirapelle said. “Yeah, we feel like we have something to prove. Yeah, we want to go out there, we want to wrestle our best and want to win the title again, but it’s not like we’re going in undefeated and everybody’s got their eye on us.”

Jayne is 26-2 on the season; his only two losses have come to Minnesota’s No. 4 Mack Reiter. They could possibly meet again.

No. 12 Cassio Pero (141) goes into the tournament as a No. 3 seed and Dietzen has earned a No. 4 seed.

Illinois has two wrestlers at No. 5 seeds: No. 12 Donny Reynolds (165) and No. 14 Tyrone Byrd (197). No. 20 Mike Behnke is the lowest seeded of the Illinois, at No. 7.

“I think we’ve really had a very steady team,” Johnson said. “They’ve done great things this year. I’m just happy the way things have gone this year and now more important stuff – the regular season Big Ten Championship was nice, the Midlands was nice, a second at the (NWCA/Cliff Keen) National Duals was nice – but now the nitty gritty of the season comes. We’ve been so consistent all year; that’s what I expect this weekend.”

Since 1973, only Iowa or Minnesota has won Big Tens. Iowa won the title last season and has 31 team titles overall, the most of the Big Ten. Illinois is second with 16. Illinois took third last season.

Johnson said the team is as healthy as it has been all season, which couldn’t come at a better time.

The top seven wrestlers from each class in the Big Tens will qualify for the NCAA Championships (March 17-19 in St. Louis) and the coaches will vote on two wild cards from the eighth-place finishers, meaning 72 wrestlers will compete in the NCAAs. The tournament will be televised on CSTV on March 7 at 9:30 p.m.

“(Assistant coach Jim) Heffernan always said, ‘Just wrestle to your seed or better, and everything will work out,'” Glynn said. “And obviously, that’s what we have to here. We have four people seeded No. 1 – if we have four champs, along with seconds and thirds, we should win this pretty easily.”