Hometown kid Cardani wins first match as Illini

By Brendyn Jones

For freshman wrestler Justin Cardani, hard work and preparation made his dream of wrestling with the I on his chest come true.

Saturday, Cardani competed unattached at the Maryville Open in St. Louis. He took home the title in the amateur 125-pound bracket, marking his first victory as an Illini wrestler.

“The very first match, I was extremely nervous,” Cardani said. “My heart was beating fast, and when I finally stepped on the mat, it all went away. I just wanted to go out there and compete, and it was amazing.”

Cardani pinned Purdue wrestler Terrin Machart in his first match of the tournament. He went on to win his next two matches by decision, earning a place in the championship match, where he won by decision.

Though Saturday was his first win as an Illini, Cardani’s ties within the Champaign community date back to his youth. He started wrestling in first grade when his neighbor convinced him to come to the Champaign Wrestling Club. A shy kid, he quickly found a love for the sport.

Cardani loved growing up in the area competing.  He  also the University. Since he was young, he said it was his dream to wrestle for the Illini, and he looked up to several former Illini wrestlers like B.J. Futrell, who was a two- time All-American in 2011 and 2012, and Jessie Delgado, who won back-to-back NCAA and Big Ten championships in 2013 and 2014.

Cardani attended Champaign Centennial High School. He credits a lot of the development of his style to his time spent at Centennial. In his junior season, he posted a record of 45-0 and won the state championship. The victory gave Centennial its first wrestling state champion in school history.

“It was a dream come true,” Cardani said. “I knew what I needed to do to come (to Illinois); I needed to win state. I’ve been dreaming about it since I was little, coming here and watching state finals. It was just a dream come true.”

Possibly, what was the more improbable for Cardani was the fact  he repeated the same amount of success as a senior; he had a record of 52-0 and captured the state championship for the second year in a row.

“It was even more,” Cardani said, “I did it once, kind of unexpectedly, and then this time, it was expected of me, so I had to keep training. Everyone was going to do their best to beat me, and there was a target on my back, and I loved it, and I loved the competition. It was just fun.”

 After winning two Illinois state titles, the doors were wide open for Cardani to continue his wrestling career at the collegiate level. When the time came to commit to a school, it was never a question as to where he wanted to go.

“Just another dream I accomplished, finally,” he said. “I just knew I wanted to come here no matter what, and I was willing to do what it took to get here.”

However, Cardani’s dreams are not complete after making it as an Illinois wrestler; he wants to accomplish the same feats as the Illini wrestlers he looked up to growing up. He dreams of winning an NCAA title for Illinois.

Cardani is off to a winning start as an Illini wrestler and has gotten high praise from head coach Jim Heffernan.

“Got a really good wrestling IQ,” Heffernan said. “He still needs to get physically stronger, and he will as he grows up and matures, but he’s got a lot of really good things. He’s going to have a really good career.”

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