Illinois wrestling must face preseason hype

Every time I remember Illinois wrestling begins its season this weekend, Nelly’s “Here Comes the Boom” plays loudly in my head.

Pretty appropriate, if you ask me.

The Illini return to the mat after a successful 2012-13 season that saw sophomore Jesse Delgado taking home his first NCAA title in the 125-pound weight class. He also dominated the field at the Big Ten Championships, going undefeated on his way to taking down Iowa’s Matt McDonough — the tournament No. 1 seed.

But coming back after winning a championship can be tough. Now there are all of these expectations to contend with. It’s like he has to win. Anything else is a disappointment.

No pressure.

Any time a team or an individual wins big, there’s always talk of a repeat. Alabama football. The Miami Heat. The Chicago Blackhawks. Everyone wants that elusive back-to-back title. It means legacy, dynasty, immortality. But it also means teams have to play with a target on their backs.

How many times have we watched teams or individual athletes suffer from a feeling of entitlement? They think they’re the best, and maybe they are, but if they’re too cocky and self-assured, it’ll come back to haunt them later on.

Fans often prepare themselves for this idea of a one-hit wonder. I thought for sure last year’s Heisman winner Johnny Manziel fit the fold, but apparently he is the wunderkind everyone made him out to be — despite the character flaws and suspicious autograph signings.

I don’t think Jesse Delgado has set himself up for a junior-year collapse. His coaches won’t let that happen.

“Our goal is to get him to repeat for the next two years,” said head coach Jim Heffernan after the NCAA’s last March. “I know we’re going to get the best out of the kid every time out.”

Illinois can only hope.

Seniors Conrad Polz and Jordan Blanton may have graduated, taking their combined five All-American accolades with them, but Illinois retains a garrison of young talent. Including Delgado, five NCAA championship qualifiers return to this year’s team.

Rankings only add to the pressure of expectations. Right now Illinois is sitting pretty at No. 7 in the NCAA preseason poll, but carrying around the label of top 10 brands the Illini as a team to beat.

The Big Ten should consider changing its name to “The Conference That Dominates Collegiate Wrestling,” but it lacks a certain charm that apparently Legends and Leaders exhibited in large quantities. Right Jim Delany?

Ten of the NCAA’s top-25 teams hail from the Big Ten, 11 if you count Maryland, but we won’t until their exodus from the Atlantic Coast Conference is official next year. For now the Terps only exist in my mind as Big Ten wannabes.

The NCAA might as well tell the other conferences not to show up, the championship will just be a battle royale between the best of the Midwest.

If I could offer Heffernan and his athletes a sort of mantra for the season, Nelly’s inspiring lyric “I ain’t in it to win, to win it I’m all in” would definitely be a contender. As far as I’m concerned, the song was made for wrestling.

Aryn is a senior in LAS. She can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @ArynBraun.