Illini wrestling take No. 11 ranking out West to the Reno Tournament of Champions

By Alex Wallner

Tweet: [email protected] is looking to continue winning streak on Sunday at Reno Tournament of Champions.

The No. 11-ranked Illinois wrestling team is 8-0 in the 2015-2016 season and will head west to Reno, Nevada on Sunday for the Reno Tournament of Champions.

The Illini will be one of four ranked teams in the tournament. Illinois’ toughest opponent will be no. 7 Oklahoma State – which comes in with a 3-2 record on the season.

Along with No. 7 Oklahoma State are No. 17 Central Michigan and Big Ten rival, No. 24 Indiana – both of which come into Sunday with 4-0 records on the campaign.

Going into Sunday, Illinois head coach Jim Heffernan said that the Illini will not meet these teams again this season, which makes this sort of tournament that much more intriguing for the Illini.

“It’ll be good and more importantly, it’s teams we won’t see – most of them we won’t see – again,” Heffernan said. “That’s a good thing for this new qualification system and RPI’s and everything else, provided that we’re winning matches. It’s a good thing for us and part of the reason we’re doing it, as well as just how these dates fit into our schedule.”

This is the Illini’s first tournament of the season with all eight previous victories coming in dual matches.

No. 1-ranked, 157-pound Isaiah Martinez is one man who is very fond of the tournament aspect of wrestling as he said this style of wrestling will help his team prepare for the Big Ten Championships in March.

“We don’t wrestle in many tournaments throughout the year just because of how the nature of wrestling goes,” Martinez said. “We do a lot of duals, but it’s going to be nice to get a tournament feel and hopefully will prepare us for the Big Ten Championships.”

The last time Martinez was in this type of format, he was standing on the podium as a 157-pound national champion at last season’s NCAA Tournament.

Martinez currently stands at 8-0 in tournament matches since last season with the only other wrestler ranked in the top 20 on Sunday being No. 8 Lucas Smith of Central Michigan.

Coming into Sunday, Martinez said that he – along with the coaching staff – have seen improvement in certain areas and is something that he believes will help him become even stronger throughout the rest of the season.

“You know what, Mark told me yesterday and I even see it; in the past two weeks, I have made bigger gains than I have made all summer,” Martinez said. “I really, really think the next time I step out there, it’s going to be great. It’s been great before in the past and I think I can do even better now.”

With three weeks off from its last competition, Heffernan said that he has seen a lot of progress out of certain guys in practice during that span.

One wrestler who has progressed and shown supreme confidence over the entire season is junior Zane Richards. Richards is currently the ninth-ranked wrestler in the 133-pound weight class and is 8-0 on the season.

Richards said that going out and dominating every night is something that he plans on doing on Sunday and moving forward into the rigorous Big Ten slate.

For Richards, wrestling against top 25 quality teams in the conference is something that he is looking forward to, especially with four other wrestlers ranked ahead of him in the same weight class in the conference.

“I get a chance to wrestle the best guys and I think this is the year that I’m going to really put the beat down on them,” Richards said. “I’m excited that I get to wrestle these dudes and I don’t think they know what’s coming. I’m ready for them and I don’t think they are going to be, and even if they are – then hats off to them – it isn’t going to stop me.”