Team of the Century: Wrestling wins 2005 Big Ten Title

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By Brendyn Jones, Assistant On-Air Editor

When Illini fans reminisce about the 2004-2005 Illinois athletic year, they often talk about the great basketball team that won the Big Ten title and finished runner-ups in the NCAA tournament. But that basketball team wasn’t the only team that brought back a Big Ten championship that season.

The 2004-2005 wrestling team breezed through the regular season, finishing with a 14-1-1 dual record with their only loss coming against the defending national champions and No. 1 ranked team in the country, Oklahoma State. 

That season Illinois had two Big Ten Champions and five All-Big Ten wrestlers and on their Big Ten championship roster. By seasons end, the success earned head coach Mark Johnson the Big Ten Coach of the Year award.

The team was led by senior Alex Tirapelle, who was one of the best wrestlers in the nation by his sophomore season. Tirapelle had an undefeated regular season, won his first Big Ten Championship, placed in the NCAA tournament, and earned Big Ten Wrestler of the year.

While there wasn’t much for Tirapelle to prove in his junior season, a team title and an individual national championship had eluded him. His focus when coming back was to keep trying to win the national title. 

“After my freshman year, it was kind of an eye-opening experience for me,” Tirapelle said. “It’s like ‘Hey listen, I can win this tournament and that needs to be the goal from here on out.’ So right after the last three years of my competitive career, that was certainly the goal, doing things to try to put myself in the best position to win the national tournament.”

The season started strong for the Illini in their early-season tournaments and came to a high when the team won the Midlands Tournament, which featured teams like Iowa, Iowa State and Michigan State. 

When the dual season started for the Illini, they jumped out to an 8-0 start in the first two weeks of the season. The undefeated streak came to an end when they ran into the Oklahoma State Cowboys in a showdown between the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the country. 

Their first dual after losing to Oklahoma State came against one of the best wrestling programs in NCAA history in Iowa. The Big Ten has historically been the most influential conference for wrestling, and Iowa often falls right on top of the pile. 

Illinois beat Iowa by 18 points in that match, and it started a Big Ten dual season where Illinois would obliterate their Big Ten rivals, including beatings of Penn State by 20 points, Indiana by 37, and Northwestern by 23 points.

“I think with the duals, we had a very balanced lineup,” Tirapelle said. “We didn’t have any big glaring holes, and if you’re going to be a successful dual team, that’s important. We put 10 guys out there that were pretty tough, could be successful at the national level and win matches in the national tournament, if not get an All-American or compete to win the thing.”

“And then, winning breeds confidence, right? The more you win, it’s an exponential effect, a spiral effect. The more we win, the more confidence you get. The more confident you are, the more you win. So, that kind of helped us heading into the postseason.”

The success peaked in the Big Ten Championships, as the Illini had nine of their ten starting wrestlers place in the tournament. Tirapelle and Pete Friedl brought individual Big Ten Championships to Champaign for their weight classes 157 and 174, respectively. 

Kyle Ott, Mark Jayne and Brian Glynn each secured second place in the tournament while Cassio Pero took third, Tyrone Byrd took fifth and Donny Reynolds and Mike Behnke finished sixth. The team victory marked Illinois’ first Big Ten wrestling title since 1952 — and their current one to this day. 

“We were all so excited and so pumped and happy for Mark (Johnson) and Jim (Heffernan) and the rest of the coaching staff for all the work and all the time that they put into the program,” Tirapelle said. “They had been there many years laying the foundation before the guys on the (2005) team got there.”

Tirapelle, who is now an assistant coach at Stanford, credits some of his coaching philosophy to his experience with Mark Johnson, the winningest coach in program history, and Jim Heffernan, the current Illinois head coach. 

“They treated their team one and the same,” Tirapelle said. “Everyone on the team brought value. They’d care for not only the guy who was the national champion but the quote-unquote ‘weaker’ wrestler on the team. They treated them the same, the same level of respect, the same level of care.”

@brendyn_jones

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