Illinois wrestling faces tough test against No. 2 Missouri


Illinois’ Nikko Reyes presses Kent State’s Jerald Spohn onto the mat on Sunday. Missouri is the third MAC team Illinois has faced.

By Ethan Swanson

The NWCA National Duals tournament is only a 4-year-old event, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an important one for the Illinois wrestling team.

As a team, the Illini (13-4, 6-3 Big Ten) have never made it to the final of the event and have their work cut out for them this year if they want to appear in the championship match.

This weekend Illinois, the tournament’s No. 7 seed but ranked No. 5 nationally, travels to Iowa City, Iowa, to take on the No. 2 seed and No. 2 in the nation Missouri Tigers in a NWCA quarterfinal.

Without a doubt, this will be the Illini’s toughest nonconference matchup of the season. The Tigers (21-0, 8-0 MAC) are 2-0 against Big Ten adversaries.

Illinois leads the all-time series with Missouri 20-9, with its most recent meeting resulting in an 18-16 Illini loss in 2009. Despite the Tigers’ success this season and in recent years, the Illini believe facing a relatively unfamiliar foe only adds to the excitement of the matchup and could potentially act as an advantage come Saturday.  

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“During the Big Ten season and nationals, you may wrestle the same guy three or four times a year,” 174-pound sophomore Zac Brunson said. “I don’t think a lot of our guys have wrestled the guy they’ll have this weekend. It’s just another thing to get excited about: get a fresh look at someone new.”

Illinois and Missouri each have seven wrestlers ranked in the top 25 in their respective weight classes. Combined, the two schools have four individuals ranked either first or second in the nation. Saturday’s meet will feature five matchups with both wrestlers ranked in the top-20 nationally. In a meet of this caliber, both the coaches and wrestlers emphasized that every point is crucial.

“We have some solid matchups that should be exciting,” 184-pound sophomore Nikko Reyes said. “It comes down to execution, the little things. In the third period, one guy is going to back off. You have to stay solid.”

The most anticipated match of Saturday’s meet pits Illinois’ defending national champion senior Jesse Delgado against Missouri senior Alan Waters in a national No. 1 vs. No. 2, 125-pound bout. Both wrestlers are undefeated on the season, with Waters holding a 24-0 record and Delgado a 6-0 record, who has gone 4-0 since returning from a shoulder injury that kept him off the mat for nearly two months. Although this is the toughest test Delgado has faced in his shortened season, he is eager to wrestle talent equal to what he will see at the Big Ten championships and nationals.

“It’s a good test,” Delgado said. “It’s good for me because I’ve had a short season and because I’ll have a good match with a high-level guy before Big Tens.”

Defeating Missouri is a tall order, but it isn’t far-fetched to say the Illini could pull off the upset. Both Illinois and Missouri faced Purdue and Kent State this season, and in both of Illinois’ meets with the common opponents, the Illini either matched or exceeded the performance of Missouri against the same teams. Missouri topped Purdue 23-9 and Kent State 26-14, while the Illini beat the Boilermakers 21-9 and shutout Kent State 38-0. 

Missouri also wrestles in the MAC conference, which is not nearly as deep as the Big Ten and is a conference the Illini already have two wins against this season. With Illinois coming off its fifth-straight dual win, the Illini’s confidence is high heading into this weekend.

“We’re completely fired up,” Brunson said. “Missouri is a tough, competitive team, but looking at our matchups, we all know that we’re better this team. If we all get our individual jobs done, we can beat them.”

Ethan can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @EthanSwanson88.