Illinois wrestling prepares for Big Ten tournament

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  • Illinois' Isaiah Martinez attempts to bring down Nebraska's James Green during the wrestling match vs. Nebraska at Huff Hall on Jan. 23. The Illini lost 22-9.

By Ethan Swanson

The Illinois wrestling team will attempt to capture its first conference title since 2005 at this weekend’s Big Ten Championships in Columbus, Ohio.

The Illini (13-5, 6-3 Big Ten) are No. 12 in the nation, according to the USA Today/NWCA rankings, and finished seventh in the conference dual standings. However, the wrestlers feel as if their regular season results are a misrepresentation of their talent and potential. 

The Illini starting lineup headed to Columbus this weekend is 4-1 — it’s only loss to now-No. 1 Missouri, 23-13. Illinois was rewarded for its late-season success by being one of 10 conference teams to have at least nine out of 10 wrestlers seeded in the Big Ten tournament. 

“All the weights are extremely tough,” assistant head coach Mark Perry said. “That’s just the reality of good competition. This group of guys is going to have to understand that if they want to be competitive as a team. We have to get guys into the top three or four.”

Illinois has five individuals with a No. 5 seed or better. Senior Jackson Morse and sophomore Zac Brunson both finished with a 6-3 record in the Big Ten and earned a No. 5 seed. Morse’s 24 wins matches his career high.

“Just being there the last three years helps me know what to expect,” Morse said. “You might face three guys at your weight that are all ranked in the top-10 nationally, it can wear on you mentally.”

Sophomore Steven Rodrigues was given a No. 4 seed after finishing with a 14-8 overall record and registering wins against his last four conference opponents. However, the Illini’s highest hopes for an individual conference champion lie in senior Jesse Delgado and freshman Isaiah Martinez.  

Delgado, the defending national champion at 125 pounds, was given the No. 2 seed after going 3-0 in the Big Ten after returning from injury. He lost his final match of the year to Missouri’s now-No. 1 Alan Waters. 

Finishing the dual meet season 26-0, Martinez has earned No. 1 ranking nationally and the No. 1 seed at 157 pounds. Although this will be his first Big Ten Championships meet, Martinez said he’s prepared.

“My mindset hasn’t changed,” Martinez said. “I know what I have to do — just do everything I’ve been doing all season long. I still hang on to the underdog mentality. I’m only a freshman; I haven’t done really anything yet.”

To win the Big Ten team title and end Penn State’s four-year championship run, the Illini will not only have to place wrestlers in the finals, but also have success in the consolation bracket. When the seeds get higher, the outcomes become more unpredictable. Sophomore Zane Richards said seeds are irrelevant when it comes time to take the mat.

“I try not to pay attention to them,” Richards said. “The last couple matches you’ll be wrestling the best guys, anyway.”

Richards and Nikko Reyes were given No. 6 and No. 7 seeds, respectively, after both finished the dual season with at least five Big Ten wins and 20 overall victories. 

Freshman Brooks Black and junior Jeff Koepke earned No. 10 and No. 11 conference rankings at the two heaviest weight classes. According to Perry, if Illinois hopes to have any chance of claiming the conference crown, these individuals are the X-factors.

“The team that’s going to win this year will have to do very well on the backside of the bracket,” Perry said. “I think our guys are ready for that.”

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