Illini wrestler Richards looks to cap off dominating season

By Alex Wallner

#Illini wrestler Zane Richards has won many accolades, and winning a Big Ten and National title are next on the list

Junior Zane Richards grew up competing in many sports, but got his trademark confidence from wrestling.

“I liked baseball and soccer a lot growing up, but wrestling always had a little bit more of an edge just because of the high level of competitiveness or how it was a combat sport,” Richards said. “Even, maybe, just the individual aspect of how it was up to me to make myself good, not just relying on my team.”

Richards beat opponents in an impressive fashion early in his career — which grew his love for wrestling. He won two state championships at Carbondale Community High School, one at 125 pounds and one at 132 pounds.

Richards has used ‘dominate’ a lot this season to describe what he wants to do to opponents every match. With back-to-back fifth-place finishes at the Big Ten Championships the past two seasonsss, the 133-pounder is looking for more dominance this time around.

“I see myself winning it, plain and simple,” Richards said. “I know I’m the best guy by just the way I’ve been wrestling. My mind going into and how we’ve been training, there is no one better than me and it’s all about just going out there and performing.”

Of his 21 wins on the seasonss, eight victories have been against opponents ranked in the top-20 of InterMat wrestling’s rankings.

Going into the Big Ten Championships next weekend at Carver-Hawkeyes Arena, Richards stands as the No. 1-seed.

“It (would mean) everything,” Richards said of winning a Big Ten and National Championship. “Most importantly — even more than winning — and I really want to win badly, is that I want to perform at my best when it matters the most in those big-time matches.”

From last season to this season, Richards has gone through a lot: The little things have helped propel him to his No. 2 rankingss.

Even after practices or matches, Richards’ competitiveness doesn’t stop, as he and his teammates compete in combat-themed video games to relax.

“We actually play Super Smash Brothers,” Richards said. “That’s our big thing. It’s competitive and it’s another combat-type thing and we’re not the greatest at it, but it’s just another way to compete and have fun and we don’t have to take it as seriously as wrestling.”

Coming out of high school, Richards was recruited by a couple other schools, but he thought Illinois offered him more than wrestling.

“Illinois was the best place for me because it was going to give me the best opportunity to be the best wrestler and the best person I know I can be and I think it’s showing today,” Richards said.

Richards credits assistant coach Jeremy Hunter for pushing him and for staying loyal to his wrestler.

“On days when he probably doesn’t want to go (workout) with me and it’s been early in the morning, he’s still been there,” Richards said. “I got to give him a lot of credit because he’s been there since day one and has pushed me all the way through, just like my father.

“It’s hard to break apart everyone, but Hunter has been like a father figure to me, even if he knows it or not.”

Hunter is in his 14th season at Illinoisss and is best known for drills at practice — he uses a very hands-on approach.

Hunter credits Richards more than he credits himself and believed Richards would be special during his freshman season.

“We thought he was good enough to win a national title as a freshman,” Hunter said. “He was right there, he wrestled the No. 1 and No. 3-seeds and went to overtime with the guy that won the (2014) national title.”

Hunter added that maturing and succeeding at the little things were both aspects that the entire coaching staff helped Richards with.

Hunter credits Richards for controlling his weight and becoming better defensively, which helped him rebound from a good season in 2014-15 to a great season in 2015-16.

“He’s made a huge jump this season,” Hunter said. “The big thing, I think, is that he’s matured a little bit and he’s doing the little things right where — in the past — he’d take shortcuts. This year, he’s been focused and he’s done everything we’ve asked him and more, so we’re happy at where he’s at right now.”

For Richards to have success at Big Tens, Hunter would like to see him wrestle a fun seven minutes.

“We’re coming to the end of the year and there’s been a couple of times this season where toward the end of his matches, he hasn’t wrestled the last 10 to 15 seconds like we would want him to,” Hunter said. 

“Every second counts.”

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