Illini wrestling hopes to gain more momentum going into the Big Ten season at Midlands

By Alex Wallner

The No. 11-ranked Illinois wrestling team will compete in the 53rd Ken Kraft Midlands tournament in Evanston, Illinois, on Tuesday and Wednesday, which will mark the second straight bracket-style tournament for the Illini this season.

With Big Ten competition looming, head coach Jim Heffernan elected to not take his starters to this year’s event, in order to prepare for the rigorous Big Ten slate.

Heffernan said that rest and getting healthier are both key to conference success — the Illini will face No. 6 and defending national champion Ohio State on Sunday at Huff Hall and follow up with No. 2-ranked Iowa on Friday, Jan. 8 – also at Huff Hall.

“We have a big stretch coming up, starting Jan. 3,” Heffernan said. “Really, it’s a chance to give these other guys an opportunity at a high level event and see how they compete.”

Iowa has won the last two Midlands Championships, which the Illini last won in 2012. Iowa leads the way with the most Midlands Championships as well, with 24. The Illini have won four since the tournament began in 1963.

Redshirt freshman Deuce Rachal said that he is looking forward to competing against high quality competition from some of the best schools in the country.

“I think it’s going to be really exciting,” Rachal said. “I love wrestling and I’m glad I get the chance to see how much I have improved since high school by wrestling in this tournament.”

Rachal is from Chicago and wrestled in both the Michigan State Open and Joe Parisi Open last season, compiling a record of 2-4 with one fall before redshirting the rest of the season.

Rachal has backed up sophomore heavyweight Brooks Black this season.

Other Illini that will compete over the next two days with Rachal are freshmen Eric Barone at 149 pounds, Nick Gasbarro, Carver James and Tim McCarthy at 157 pounds, Mousah Jodeh at 141 pounds, Xavier Montalvo at 174 pounds and sophomore Danny Hicks at 184 pounds.

For Hicks, this will be his first trip competing at the Midlands tournament as he said that he was unable to compete, as scheduled, last year due to a family emergency and is excited for the opportunity this time around.

“I’m really excited because being an Illinois kid, I’ve always watched the Midlands as a little guy and now I’m competing in it and, you know, it’s exciting,” Hicks said.

Hicks is coming off a 3-2 record at the Reno Tournament of Champions last weekend, which ended in a consolation round of eight defeat against Morgan Smith of Simon Fraser.

The tournament attracts some of the top Midwestern wrestling schools — and wrestling in the Midwest often features some of the best teams in the country.

Along with the Illini and the Hawkeyes, are the host Northwestern Wildcats and No. 19-ranked Purdue Boilermakers, among others.

All of the competitors for Illinois are from the Chicagoland area and for every one of them, the Midlands is important as it showcases some of the Midwest’s best, according to Heffernan.

“If you’re from the state, you grew up watching this tournament,” Heffernan said. “I’m sure they’re all looking forward to it, it’s something they’ve wanted to do for a long time and I think it’s a big deal for all of them, so they should be excited to be here and it’s obviously a very competitive tournament.”

At last year’s Midland’s tournament, Illinois wrestled its starters, but this year, with Heffernan sending the reserves instead, he said that it will be a little different.

Heffernan added that his goal isn’t to win this event: He wants to see what each individual can do with their starting opportunities.

[email protected]

@AWallner93