Gonzalez clinches Final Four slot for Illini

The No. 7 Illinois wrestling team watched a 10-point lead over Cornell after seven matches evaporate in two, knotting the score at 16 with only the heavyweight bout remaining.

To make matters worse, the Illini were facing the No. 3 team in the nation at its home with a spot in the NWCA/Cliff Keen Division I Dual Meet Final Four on the line.

The Illini know what it’s like to lose a lead to a top-ranked team late on the road after falling to then-No. 1 Iowa on Dec. 2, and weren’t going to let it happen again.

“We knew we had to score early and we knew we had to score in the matches we could,” Illinois head coach Jim Heffernan said. “I think that was critical for us.”

Freshman and No. 6-ranked Jesse Delgado continued his strong season and got the scoring started at 125, recording an 8-3 decision over No. 6 Frank Perrelli in the first of many hard-fought matches between the Illini and Big Red.

Junior 133-pounder B.J. Futrell kept the momentum going, racking up points en route to an 18-3 technical fall in the second period and an 8-0 advantage.

Despite dropping two of the next three bouts, juniors Conrad Polz and Jordan Blanton righted the ship, collecting back-to-back decisions, at 165 and 174 pounds, respectively, and a 17-7 lead.

Cornell, though trailing the entire meet, surged back with No. 5 Steve Bosak’s decision and No. 1 Cam Simaz’s pin, and Illinois losing a point due to unsportsmanlike conduct, to help complete its opponent’s comeback.

After nine hard-fought matches, the 10th and final one would be the difference in which team would advance. Cornell’s usual heavyweight starter, senior Maciej Jochym, stepped to the mat. But the wrestler across from him was not the probable starter, instead 197-pound Illinois sophomore Mario Gonzalez, stepping in for junior Pat Walker.

Knowing how athletic and quick Gonzalez is, this was a decision that head coach Jim Heffernan had in his back pocket for the right situation.

“Against Cornell it was just one of those things we had talked about,” Heffernan said. “The possibility of moving Mario up to try and clinch the match and the way things worked, we thought at that time that was our best opportunity to win the match.”

Gonzalez was coming off a tough overtime loss in the team’s semifinal win over Oklahoma, but showed signs of a short memory, jumping up 2-0 in the first period.

The third period, however, was where he seized control, grabbing a takedown to push his lead to 7-2 and an eventual victory that clinched 19-16 dual meet victory for the Illini. His victory allowed his coach’s strategy to pay off.

“It was one of those situations where you look good or you look bad, and fortunately Mario won and we look good for making it,” Heffernan said.

It was Cornell’s first dual meet loss of the season. The victory was Gonzalez’s 18th of the season and left Illini senior captain Eric Terrazas praising his teammate’s attitude.

“Just goes to show that being tough is a big part of the sport,” Terrazas said. “And that’s exactly what Mario did today. He out-toughed his opponent, and we won the dual.”

The Illini will join No. 4 Minnesota, No. 5 Iowa and No. 1 Oklahoma State on Feb. 19 to compete for the NWCA National Dual championship.