Wrestling team face two-meet weekend against Purdue and Northwestern

By Daniel Dexter

Despite its struggles this season against the Big Ten, the Illinois wrestling team refuses to dwell on the past as it moves forward into its final two duals of the regular season.

The No. 18 Illini will travel to West Lafayette, Ind., to take on No. 24 Purdue on Friday before coming home on Sunday for Senior Night at Huff Hall against No. 21 Northwestern.

In its previous home meet, the team was defeated by No. 7 Nebraska, 13-22, but Illinois’ opponents this weekend shouldn’t be as challenging as the Cornhuskers were. Both the Boilermakers and Wildcats are coming off losses to Big Ten teams, against No. 12 Ohio State and No. 3 Iowa, respectively, heading into their matchups with Illinois.

“We aren’t concerned about (Purdue and Northwestern) or any other team,” said associate head coach Mark Perry. “I think we are just trying to get our guys mentally right. It’s been a very frustrating season because it feels like when one thing goes right, two things go wrong.”

At this point in the season, Perry is more concerned with preparing his wrestlers for the postseason. He advised them to wrestle more selfishly rather than to help the team win.  

Redshirt senior Tony Dallago learned that the hard way in his loss against Nebraska’s No. 4 Robert Kokesh. Instead of wrestling more his style, he tried riskier moves to put his opponent on his back in an attempt to gain bonus points for the team. When he takes on Northwestern’s No. 16 Lee Munster, Dallago will have another chance at breaking the Illinois school record for career pins in his final match at Huff Hall.

“It’s going to be special because I have wrestled my whole collegiate career here,” Dallago said. “My ups and my downs have been here. It would be nice to get a big win for the team and finish my career here off right.”

Dallago will be the only senior wrestling on Senior Night because his teammate, Mario Gonzalez, will sit out again after injuring his knee in a win the previous weekend. The injury is another setback for the Illini, who have had to deal with missing wrestlers from the lineup the whole season. Perry expects Gonzalez to be healthy enough to compete after this weekend, and the injury doesn’t change anything in terms of where he expects Gonzalez to be at the end of the year.

“He will be ready to go when it matters in the postseason,” Perry said. “Nothing changes. The goals that he set for himself before the season and when he came to the University of Illinois are right in front of him now. This is it. It really doesn’t matter how he feels. As long as he gets his mind right, I think he will do really well in the postseason.”

Even though the team will be without its full lineup once again, 141-pound Steven Rodrigues will return against Purdue after breaking his hand at the Midlands Championships in late December. This was his second time having to sit out this season after missing time due to an ACL tear suffered the previous season. Rodrigues is finally ready to make an impact in the lineup after having to watch the team lose so many close duals.

“It’s definitely been hard to watch because you want to be out there helping your team,” Rodrigues said. “But you have to stay positive and do the best you can.”

Perry is happy to see Rodrigues back in the lineup because his style creates more bonus points for the team through pins and major decisions. He is also hopeful Rodrigues’ high energy style can be the “spark plug” the team needs to get back on track.

With a month remaining before the Big Ten Championships, Perry wants to see the Illini have a more aggressive mindset going into matches. For him, being prepared mentally is just as important as being ready physically.

“We need to be as excited or even more excited than our competitors,” Perry said. “That will take you a long way itself. Most times in the postseason, hustle wins. Guys just need to put out as much effort as possible.”

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