Wrestling team returns home to face Nebraska

By Daniel Dexter

After a two-meet weekend on the road, the Illinois wrestling team will be competing in front of the home crowd this Saturday at 4 p.m. when it takes on Nebraska at Huff Hall.

The Illini have struggled against Big Ten competition this season, getting their first conference win last Sunday against Michigan State. Associate head coach Mark Perry said Nebraska will pose a tougher challenge to overcome than the Spartans; however, Perry said he believes the teams are evenly matched if Illinois can be at full strength this weekend.

“If we have our full lineup in, then it’s going to be a barn burner,” Perry said. “On paper, it’s about a five-five split, and then it just comes down to which team shows up and which team wants it more.”

The team has been without 141-pound Steven Rodrigues and 197-pound Mario Gonzalez since both were injured at the Midlands at the end of December. Both of their statuses are questionable and won’t be officially determined until Saturday.

Gonzalez, a two-time NCAA qualifier, said there is about a 50-50 chance of whether he will be able to compete this weekend. He has gotten back to his usual practice routine and is hoping to be cleared so he can help the team get back on track in his last year of eligibility.

“It’s frustrating because a lot of the losses we have had have been pretty close,” Gonzalez said. “I feel that if I could have wrestled, we probably could have changed things around. At the same time, I don’t want to dwell on that because there is nothing I can do.”

Although the injuries have been frustrating, Perry said there is still time for Gonzalez and Rodrigues to come back and make an impact late in the season. With the way the wrestling season is structured, if they both wrestle well at the Big Ten Tournament, then they will be able to compete at the NCAA tournament.

“When you have that kind of time off and you use it the right way, it can be a positive,” Perry said. “They both have been putting in a lot of work, and when it’s their time to go, whether it is this weekend or the following weekend, they are going to perform when it matters. That is the philosophy of the program. If we can be at our best and healthy in March, we will take that 10 times out of 10.”

Senior Tony Dallago has been able to stay healthy all season and has put himself in position to break the Illinois record for most career pins. He recorded his 37th pin against Michigan State to tie Illinois alumnus B.J. Futrell. Dallago wasn’t overly impressed with himself about the achievement since he would rather be remembered for wrestling well at the NCAA tournament.

“I didn’t even know I had (tied the record) or that I was even close,” Dallago said. “The record doesn’t really mean much to me. Other people view it as prestigious, but it’s not really my goal.”

Dallago does, however, believe that Illinois dominant 29-6 win over Michigan State can serve as a confidence booster as the team approaches the end of the season. The team has been frustrated with how close the losses have been and a win helps reassure the wrestlers of how talented they can be.

On the other hand, Perry said team wins and losses aren’t as important as individual wins. He is expecting to have seven Illinois wrestlers qualify for the NCAA tournament, and his main concern is how good of a seed each receives.

“Individually, I think guys are in a really good place right now,” Perry said. “Even the guys that have been hurt, I think they’ve used it the right way, and they will be ready. Getting a team win is important, but that’s not really what our guys have been focused on. It’s been more about being individually selfish and trying to get what each one of them wants in March in Oklahoma City.”

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