Illini wrestling travels to Ithaca to compete for coveted spot in Final Four

Win or go home.

That’s the reality the No. 7 Illinois wrestling team faces as it travels to Ithaca, N.Y., to participate in the NWCA Cliff Keen National Duals on Sunday, a tournament unaffiliated with the NCAA that crowns a team national champion.

The Illini (14-2, 6-2 Big Ten) will be joined by No. 12 Oklahoma, American, Central Michigan, Purdue and No. 3 Cornell, which is hosting one of the four regionals at the Newman Arena on its campus.

The Illini are the No. 2 seed and have a bye into the second round, awaiting the winner of No. 12 Oklahoma and American.

No. 1 seed Cornell also has a bye and will take on the winner of Purdue and Central Michigan.

“The fact that we gotta wrestle back-to-back teams for the first time in a while will be a little bit different, but it’s an advancement thing so if we don’t worry about the first one we don’t have a chance at the second one,” head coach Jim Heffernan said.

Heffernan’s team has shown the ability to compete on short rest, having wrestled four dual meets in one day (Nov. 12), two dual meets in one day (Nov. 20), and three dual meets in three consecutive days from Jan. 6 to Jan. 8, outscoring its nine opponents 294-88 en route to a 9-0 record.

The Illini are no strangers to tough competition, having already defeated five of the 24 teams that qualified for the tournament, as well as dropping two hard-fought meets to Iowa and Minnesota, which both are No. 1 seeds in separate regionals.

Illinois fought its way through arguably the toughest conference in the country and the National Duals field displayed that, with the Big Ten placing two teams in each of the four regionals, with two earning No. 1 seeds.

One of the team’s captains, junior B.J. Futrell, knows his team has earned this opportunity and won’t let it slip away.

“The grind is pretty much over and it’s postseason, this is where we’re looking to hit our stride and wrestle our best,” Futrell said. “We’re gonna be up against some great competition, some of the top teams in the country and we’re looking to go in there and dominate up and down the lineup.

“Pretty much everything up until this point has been just practice, glorified practice,” he added.

Despite having experienced upperclassmen in the starting lineup, Illinois hasn’t competed in the National Duals since the 2004-05 season. Coincidentally, this season’s record is also the best it’s been since that 2004-05 season.

The team is comprised mostly Illinois recruits. Considering that this format is nearly identical to the Illinois High School Association format, Heffernan isn’t worried about his team making its debut on a stage like this.

“With the new format I think our guys are really looking forward to it,” Heffernan said. “I think it’s good because you get to the national tournament as individuals it’s a little bit like that too, so I think adding the team concept makes it even more enjoyable and even more exciting.”

“This postseason stuff is the reason I do it, it’s the reason that we put ourselves through such a grind in the season, wrestling the toughest schedule week in and week out, training as hard as we do, it’s for things like this,” junior Jordan Blanton said. “It’s time to go out and perform and get the rewards.”

Reaching the Final Four is the first step in getting those rewards.