Wrestlers look for first national title

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Online Poster

By Jon Gluskin

The Illinois wrestling program is one with a storied tradition – it includes many accomplishments, awards and Big Ten Championships.

But it’s never won an NCAA Championship.

That could all change this weekend, when No. 2 Illinois heads to St. Louis, Mo., to take on the other national powerhouses at the 2005 NCAA Championships.

“I think with a great tournament, we can be the National Champions,” said Big Ten Coach of the Year Mark Johnson. “Our long-range goals for a while has been to get a trophy – to win the Big Ten Championship and then to get one of the top-four trophies. But I think the guys feel that if we’re really on, we can challenge anybody.”

The Illini enter the Championships on March 17-19 with a 16-1-1 (7-0-1) record, sharing the regular season Big Ten Title and winning the Big Ten Tournament. This tournament victory was the team’s first since 1952.

Junior Alex Tirapelle will be one of nine Illini competing this weekend. His 28-2 record and Big Ten Individual Title earned him the No. 1 seed at 157 pounds for the second consecutive year.

“Everybody starts back over,” Tirapelle said. “It doesn’t matter what your record was during the season (or) what you did during the conference meets. It just matters how you wrestle those three days.”

Nine Illini will compete in total, tying with defending champions No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 8 Central Michigan, No. 10 Cornell and No. 16 Hofstra.

“Oklahoma State is the team to beat and they’re going to be the favorites, so if they stumble at all we want to be in position to pick it up,” Tirapelle said.

Kyle Ott (125) and Pete Friedl (174) both are seeded No. 3 at their respective classes. Mark Jayne (133) enters the tournament with the No. 4-seed. Brian Glynn (184) is seeded No. 5 and Cassio Pero (141) comes in as the No. 12-seed.

“My goals for Nationals this weekend are to just basically have myself mentally prepared for every match to go out there and give 110 percent,” Pero said. “The team’s been training hard. All of the training and preparation is done, so basically I’m going out there to do my best and win those matches, so we can get team points as well.”

To get himself mentally prepared Pero said he will go over what he needs to do in each match and visualize different situations on the mat.

This will be the sophomore Pero’s first appearance at Nationals.

“Nah, I don’t feel any extra pressure because I’ve seen the Nationals several times, and I’m just excited that I actually get a chance to participate in it.”

Donny Reynolds (169), Tyrone Byrd (197) and Mike Behnke (Hwt) are all competing, but are unseeded. Byrd is the only Illini who will battle a seeded opponent in the first round. He will go up against No. 7 Ryan Bader of Arizona State.

“I think we’re going to have to perform a little bit better in areas maybe we’re not expected to,” Tirapelle said. “We know we’ve got five returning All-Americans that are expected to get the job done (Tirapelle, Friedl, Glynn, Jayne and Ott), but we’ve got nine guys going. So that’s four other guys that need to step it up and maybe overachieve just a little bit.”

Last season, Illinois placed seventh at Nationals.

Both Tirapelle and Ott have gone to the finals at Nationals – Tirapelle in 2003 and Ott in 2004 – but both took second. Tirapelle’s opponent from last year, Ohio’s Jake Percival, is on his side of the bracket as the No. 5-seed.

In Johnson’s 12 previous seasons at Illinois, he’s brought them eight Top-10 finishes and 10 Top-12 finishes. These eight Top-10 finishes in the last 10 seasons is tied for third best, behind only Iowa and Oklahoma State with 10.

Illinois has finished second twice in its history, in 1930 and 1938.

Johnson said to win it will take six or seven NCAA place-winners, something he says his team is capable of achieving.

In the last 10 seasons, Illinois has produced seven national champions, 33 All-Americans and 94 NCAA qualifiers. The most recent champion was three-time All-American Matt Lackey in 2003 at 165-pounds. These seven champions in the last 10 years tie them for fourth, behind Iowa (19), Oklahoma State (11) and Iowa State (9).

Back in 2001, Tirapelle’s older brother, Adam, won a title at 149 pounds. He owns the record for career wins at Illinois with 127.

“I don’t really think about it -during practice I look over and see the pictures and stuff – but, I don’t know, as far as added pressure or extra incentive or any other thing, (there’s) not really (any),” Tirapelle said. “Winning the Nationals is nice enough in itself.”

Illinois has never been ranked so high so late into the season.

“Every year when we’ve gone in, we’ve been a good team, but I don’t think we’ve ever been in position to possibly say, ‘Hey, we’re a National Championship contender,'” Johnson said. “This year after winning the Big Tens – when you win the Big Ten conference, you’re going to be mentioned in the upper-echelons of wrestling. So we deserve it and just hopefully we wrestle up to our ability.”

Many sessions of the tournament will be televised. The Friday morning quarterfinals will be broadcast on the newly formed ESPNU. Selected markets will have Friday night’s semifinals. The finals will be televised live on ESPN at 4 p.m. CST, the first time this has ever happened.

While the wrestling team will be hard at work in St. Louis, another Illinois team will have started its quest to make it to St. Louis later this month. Both the wrestling team and men’s basketball team could come away making school history.

“Boy, that’d be awesome, wouldn’t it?” Johnson said. “It really would be neat. The year of the Illini.”