Illinois wrestling finishes sixth at Big Ten Championships

By Ethan Swanson

Another Big Ten wrestling season is over and the Illinois wrestling team’s 10-year conference championship drought continues. The Illini have not placed in the top three since 2009.

Penn State saw its four-year conference championship winning streak come to an end. Ohio State and Iowa both scored 120 points and were named co-Big Ten Champions on Sunday in Columbus, Ohio.

Illinois has not claimed the Big Ten crown since 2005; however, the performances of the younger Illini grapplers indicate that the championship drought could come to an end in the near future.

The Illini finished sixth, with 96 points, just five and a half points behind fourth-place Michigan. After the first day of competition Saturday, Illinois was in position to rack up some points heading into Sunday’s title matches. The Illini sat only seven and a half points out of third with seven wrestlers in contention for a third-place or better individual finish.

Illinois placed five wrestlers in the top five and two in the top three, which didn’t please head coach Jim Heffernan.

“On the team level, I don’t think we scored as many points as we hoped to,” Heffernan said. “We had some matches that didn’t go our way, but we also had some individuals step up and have great performances.”

Senior Jack Morse matched his best finish in the conference tournament by defeating Michigan’s Garrett Sutton 2-0 in the 165-pound fifth-place bout. After winning his first two matches, fellow senior Jesse Delgado was upset in the semifinals by Ohio State’s No. 3-seeded Nathan Tomasello 3-2, ending his quest for a three-peat at the 125-pound conference title. Delgado — a two-time defending national champion — forfeited the third-place match, having already qualified for nationals.

“All we wanted to do was make sure Jesse qualified for nationals, and he did that,” Heffernan said. “We didn’t want to risk anything going into nationals. Wrestling in this atmosphere was really good for him, seeing good competition. It was the best he’s wrestled this season.”

The main storylines this weekend for the Illini, however, were the performances of freshmen Kyle Langenderfer and Isaiah Martinez.

Langenderfer entered the championships unseeded at 149 pounds. In his first match of the tournament, he suffered a 4-2 loss to the eventual winner, Northwestern’s defending national champion and No. 1-seeded Jason Tsirtsis. That would be Langendefer’s only loss of the tournament.

Going on to pin Ohio State’s No. 3 Logan Steiber and take down Michigan’s No. 5 Alec Pantaleo, Langendefer claimed third place in his weight class and punched his ticket to the NCAA tournament.

“He took down some really talented guys this weekend,” Heffernan said. “He really stepped up and showed us that he can rise to the competition and be the best when he needs to.”

Martinez continued his historic season for the Illini, beating Minnesota’s No. 2 seed Dylan Ness 12-5 to win the 157-pound bracket. The victory brought his season record to 30-0 and earned him Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors.

“It feels great to be a Big Ten champion, to achieve goals I’ve set for myself since the beginning of the season,” Martinez said.

All Illinois wrestlers finished in the top 10 in their respective weight classes. Zane Richards, Zac Brunson, Jeff Koepke, Nikko Reyes and Brooks Black rounded out the list of Illini who earned automatic NCAA tournament bids.

“Our future is in two weeks, we need to focus succeeding there first,” Heffernan said. “We recruited these young guys to come here for a reason: to hopefully do big things on the national level.”

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