Dallago tops competition to get atop record books

By Daniel Dexter

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

The sound of the referee’s hand slapping the mat is a familiar one to senior Tony Dallago.

The slap signals a pin, the most desirable outcome in a wrestling match. In his five-year career, Dallago has heard that sound 38 times, holding the record for most in Illinois history. 

The most recent slap of the mat came on the afternoon Dallago was being honored. It was Senior Day. Honored with three other graduating teammates, Dallago was thanked by fans and coaches for his four years in the lineup, a rare feat in college wrestling.

After flowers were given out and pictures were taken, it was time for action. Against Northwestern, a struggling Illinois wrestling team was looking to reach consecutive Big Ten dual wins for the first time this season. Dallago had his final opportunity to wrestle at Huff Hall, and he took advantage of it.

“He is fearless,” head coach Jim Heffernan said. “If there is an opportunity to pin somebody, he is going to try it. That’s not really the mind set that most wrestlers have. From that perspective, I enjoy his style of wrestling. It drives me nuts sometimes, but I enjoy it because he is never out of it. If nothing else, he is exciting.”

Dallago controlled the entire match against Northwestern’s David Helmer, a replacement to usual starter Lee Munster. After taking his opponent down several times, Dallago turned him to secure the pin and a place in the Illinois record books. Originally, Dallago was thought to have seized sole possession of the record, but B.J. Futrell, the previous record holder, pointed out that a pin of his had gone uncounted. Dallago now stands in a tie with Futrell.

“The program has been around for 100 years, or something crazy like that,” Dallago said. “To think out of anybody, I’m the guy who’s come in throughout the history of the program to get the most pins, it’s exciting. It’s definitely an accomplishment that I hold highly.”

His success in pinning opponents dates back to his time as a high school wrestler in Harrisburg, Pa. In his senior season alone, Dallago had 31 pins en route to an individual and state title. When deciding where he wanted to spend his college years, Illinois was a perfect fit for his goal of succeeding at the next level.

He joined the team in 2009 as a backup to John Dergo, a two-time NCAA qualifier. Dallago spent the year as a redshirt freshman. Regardless, the transition was tough for Dallago after having so much success in high school.

“Coming into college wrestling, I don’t think that many people in high school realize how hard it is,” Dallago said. “I had John Dergo in front of me, who was the No. 2 seed at nationals that year. I used to get pounded pretty good (in practice), so it was tough transitioning for me. It just wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be.”

From the class of five wrestlers who joined in 2009, two remain: Dallago and senior Mario Gonzalez, who also redshirted. The two are now best friends and act as senior leaders on a team of mostly underclassmen.

“Five years ago, I didn’t think that we would be as good of friends as we are now,” Gonzalez said. “Honestly, he is one of my best friends now. I’ve only known him for five years, but it seems like a lot longer than that.”

Along with Gonzalez, Dallago has also developed a close relationship with his coach, as one of Heffernan’s longest-tenured wrestlers. Despite all his development as a wrestler, Heffernan said he was most impressed with how Dallago has grown up as a person. He said Dallago has matured from a wild freshman to a mature team leader who is helping the underclassman avoid the wrestling mistakes he made when he was younger.

Dallago attributed most of his success to how hard his coaches pushed him, often not realizing the benefits of their tough-love methods.

“As much as you hate them sometimes, you’ve got to love them for sticking to you and believing in you,” Dallago said. “They helped me mature as a person, not that I realized it then. I realize it now, but I was thinking ‘screw you’ sometimes when they got mad at me. They’ve always been there for me and led me in the right direction.”

After five years, Dallago is a three-time NCAA qualifier and looking to make a fourth trip in March. This season, however, he is doing it against lighter competition, as he dropped from 184 to 174 for the first time in his college career.

Before the season, Dallago decided he was undersized in his weight class. Heffernan supported the decision, which has led to Dallago finishing with a 16-6 regular season record. With the goal of championships in mind, Heffernan is confident Dallago can compete with the best.

“More than anything, I want to see him wrestle his best at the Big Ten Tournament and wrestle his best at the national tournament,” Heffernan said. “If he does that, he won’t have any regrets, and I won’t have any regrets in his training and coaching. I think if Tony is at his best, he has an opportunity to do something great.”

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

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Dallago had tied a record after a record-keeping error revealed B.J. Futrell, the previous record holder, had gone uncredited for a pin. The pin was disproved, and Dallago is the sole record holder. The Daily Illini regrets the error.