Wrestling team comes up short in Big Ten opener

By Daniel Dexter

In their first chance to prove themselves against Big Ten competition, the Illini fell short by one point against Wisconsin this weekend.

Following the loss to Cornell, the coaches of the Illinois wrestling team said their match against Wisconsin should serve as a confidence booster for the team; however, Illinois lost the duel 19-18, despite winning as many matches, five, as Wisconsin.

Head coach Jim Heffernan was frustrated with the loss but said health is still an issue for the team as starters Jackson Morse and Caleb Ervin missed the dual with injuries.

Aside from health, Heffernan believes maturity is an issue with some younger wrestlers on the team who struggled against their higher ranked opponents, which led to bonus points for Wisconsin. Redshirt freshman Zac Brunson was disqualified in his match for stalling, and heavyweight redshirt freshman Chris Lopez lost by major decision.

“I think that we need to do more with some individuals to make sure we are getting the most out of them,” Heffernan said. “We need put them in situations where they need to get a little bit tougher.”

Redshirt freshman Zane Richards agreed with Heffernan, adding that he thinks confidence was an issue for him in his loss to No. 4 Tyler Graff. Richards said he allowed his opponent to control too much of the pace in the match and was never able to get into his rhythm.  

“I wanted to win the match, but I didn’t believe and know that I was going to win the match prior,” Richards said. “If I really know that I can beat a guy, then I should whoop him. Instead I was a little hesitant, and I had a little bit of doubt in the back of my head. That needs to be fixed by the end of the year.”

Heffernan did praise the perseverance of some of the veterans on the team, such as 141-pound Steven Rodrigues. He was able to come away with a victory in his match after scoring a reversal with six seconds remaining to take the lead.

Rodrigues returned to action the previous weekend after having to sit out the start of the season recovering from his ACL surgery. He used the time off to study the sport more, which he felt helped him in his comeback victory Friday.

“I needed to win a gutsy match,” Rodrigues said. “Last year, I lost a lot of those matches, and I needed to have that win to boost some confidence. I feel like I didn’t wrestle my best, but I won a gutsy match.”

The Illini now have three weeks off before traveling to Evanston, Ill., for the Midlands Championships. With the time off, some wrestlers will have the opportunity to rest and get healthy. Others will continue their training in preparation for tougher competition in the second half of the season.

“I really believe that each individual guy has to want to make a change and make themselves tougher,” Richards said. “There’s not really a method to it. There’s not really a system or a pattern or anything you can really do technically for it. We just have to decide that we are going to be tougher guys and grow up a little bit and be what we said we were going to be.”

Daniel can be reached at [email protected] and @ddexter23.