Winter break proved costly for Illinois wrestling team

By Alex Wallner

The No. 13-ranked Illinois wrestling team had a rigorous winter break. The team competed in two tournaments and opened up Big Ten play against tough competition.

The Illini began the break in Reno, Nevada, at the Reno Tournament of Champions, where they earned first place with 152 points. Central Michigan finished second with 119, while Big Ten rival Indiana finished in fifth place with 84.5 points.

Five individuals earned first place honors at Reno: Zane Richards at 133-pounds; Isaiah Martinez at 157-pounds; Steven Rodrigues at 165-pounds; Zac Brunson at 174-pounds and Jeff Koepke at 184-pounds.

The Reno Tournament of Champions was the first tournament-style competition for the Illini — ranked No. 11 at the time — this season.

Ten days later, Illinois would compete in its second tournament of the season in Evanston, Illinois, at the annual Midlands Championships, hosted by Northwestern.

Head coach Jim Heffernan rested all of its starters at the two-day event due to the upcoming Big Ten season and his team finished 36th out of 43 schools.

With the defending NCAA and co-Big Ten champions coming to Huff Hall to start 2016, Illinois was without No. 5-ranked Zac Brunson at 174-pounds due to injury.

Redshirt freshman Isaac Reinemann replaced Brunson for three straight competitions before not competing at No. 10 Michigan on Friday.

Reinemann finished 0-3 in those three consecutive competitions against the Buckeyes, the No. 2-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes and Northern Illinois. The Illini went 1-2 in those three matches.

The loss of Brunson stung against Ohio State, as the Illini fell 22-17. Illinois’ road would not get any easier against Iowa at Huff Hall five days later.

Illinois found itself down 12-3 through the first four matches against the Hawkeyes before Isaiah Martinez and Steven Rodrigues earned wins to tie the meet at 12.

The Illini would then lose the final four matches of the evening to fall 26-12 to the Hawkeyes, their second straight competition without Brunson.

On a quick turnaround, the Illini traveled to DeKalb, Illinois, for a nonconference dual against Northern Illinois.

Illinois defeated the Huskies by a score of 27-14, improving its record to 9-2 on the season. Ranked No. 15 at the time, Northern Illinois’ Steve Bleise faced off against Illinois’s Brock Ervin at 141-pounds.

The redshirt freshman came out victorious with a confidence-boosting win over a top-20 opponent by decision, 14-12.

Illinois received bout wins at heavyweight, 133-pounds, 157-pounds, 165-pounds and 184-pounds on the day to earn a road victory.

The trip to DeKalb would mark the first of three stops that the Illini would travel to during the week, with the next two being in Michigan. Four days after battling Northern Illinois, Illinois would return to Big Ten action against No. 10 Michigan in Ann Arbor.

With Brunson missing his fourth straight competition, Heffernan would send out another redshirt freshman to replace him. This time it was Emery Parker.

Parker faced off against a strong competitor, No. 16 Davonte Mahomes and lost 11-3, which at the time made the score 14-12 in favor of the Illini.

The closing matches of the Michigan dual were similar to that of Iowa. The Illini suffered four straight losses to lose the competition, 25-14.

At 157-pounds, No. 1-ranked Martinez improved his record to 18-0 with his 13th technical fall of the season over the Wolverines’ No. 5 Brian Murphy.

The loss dropped the Illini to 0-3 in the conference, who had another quick turnaround and a trip to East Lansing, Michigan.

Illinois would defeat the Spartans on the road, 32-10, to capture its first win of the Big Ten season and 10th overall.

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