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sludgeworth last won the day on October 14 2019

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  1. Definitely tough to rank these three. Each guy has wrestled three varsity seasons. Each guy has been pretty amazing. Looking at their career losses: Rivera's has only 11 career losses and 10 of them have been to NCAA Champions or finalists (throwing out one injury default). The lone outlier being a loss to Taylor LaMont during his freshman season. Eierman has 14 career losses and a whopping 12 of them have been to NCAA Champions or finalists. The lone outliers being Colby Smith and Josh Alber. Nick Lee has 12 career losses but only 4 have been to NCAA Champions or finalists. I would rank their losses 1 Rivera, 2 Eierman, 3 Lee. Looking at their best career wins: Rivera has 5 career wins over NCAA Champions or finalists and has twice defeated Spencer Lee . Eierman has 4 career wins over NCAA Champions or finalists and has a win over Yianni D. Nick Lee just one career win over an NCAA Champion or finalist. I would rank their signature wins 1 Rivera, 2 Eierman, 3 Lee in terms of signature wins. So if you consider their entire careers, I think Flo has the correct order. If you consider who most recently had a dominant NCAA season at 141 pounds, then you could probably make an argument for Nick Lee. I guess we'll find out soon enough. It's going to be a pretty decent Big 10 tournament.
  2. Illinois has now beaten Ohio State, Michigan, Missouri, and Rutgers in the past 12 months (along with Wisconsin and Northwestern). I really, really appreciate Flo and all that they do for the sport, but if I could offer one criticism it would be their allegiance to pet programs and their complete disregard for others. Last year, I probably listened to at least a combined 4 hours of talk about Rutgers, 4+ hours of talk about Michigan, countless hours of talk about Ohio State, and not 4 minutes combined about Illinois, who has now beaten all three. Flo spent hours stroking Sammy Alvarez and never once mentioned Piotrowski who pinned him twice. Can Illinois finally get a little love?
  3. 125- Justin Cardani- So. Breakdown: Justin Cardani returns at lead-off for the Fighting Illini after an impressive 16-win freshman campaign highlighted by numerous ranked wins and the 21st seed at the NCAA tournament. Cardani does the majority of his damage in neutral where he prefers to wrestle from space using his length and footwork to stay at a range where he can get to his outside single, but opponents generally cannot get to him. Cardani’s style is a bit vexing. He appears to be almost retreating a good deal of the time. He gets opponents to chase and then, bang, he’s in on a single leg. It reminds me a little of the way Jesse Delgado used to get to his offense. Cardani is a proficient finisher from this outside single position and equally proficient in the scrambles that often ensue. Defensively, Cardani uses his length and footwork to limit clean entries and when opponents do get to his legs, his length and scrambling present a difficult finish. This combination makes Cardani a pretty stingy customer. Cardani held every opponent but three to 5 points or less over the entire season. He held top-10 ranked opponents Devin Schroder and Drew Hildebrandt to 3 and 1 point respectively. Cardani is solid on the floor and despite some occasional difficulties getting off bottom, he generally gets the match back to neutral and resumes his game plan. It would be nice to see Cardani diversify his neutral offense a bit to create a few additional pathways to victory. Even a modest improvement in this area should see Cardani drift up into the mid-teens in the rankings and could see Cardani favored in his first-round match-up at NCAAs. Best Wins: Michael DeAugustino, Brandon Courtney, Jack Medley, Liam Cronin (3 times), Nico Aguilar, Elijah Oliver Worst Losses: Probably Bryce West and Logan Griffin Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Spencer Lee is out of reach for basically everybody, but beyond Spencer, there is a lot of parody in the Big 10 at 125. I am anxious to see how Cardani stacks up with RayVon Foley, Brock Hudkins, and Devin Schroeder. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Potential 4x California State Champion Maximo Renteria signed with Illinois. Illinois has enjoyed some decent success with California talent as their last 5 individual national titles each came courtesy of the Eureka state. 133- Lucas Byrd- Fr. Breakdown: Lucas Byrd came to Champaign as the #1 ranked prep 120 pounder in the country. His prep accolades included three Iron Man top-3 finishes, a Super 32 title, two Ohio state titles, 3 Fargo All-America medals, and greco world team appearance. Wrestlers of this pedigree generally acclimate themselves pretty well right out of the gate and I expect Byrd will do the same. An accomplished greco guy, Byrd likes to wrestle from underhooks and control ties limiting his opponent’s opportunities while creating opportunity for his own throw-bys and short offense. When he’s not in ties, Byrd likes to limit openings by dropping a hand to the mat into a three-point stance or sometimes dropping to a knee until he can get his hands back on his opponent. Byrd is not a high-volume leg attack guy but he does pop-off his fair share of shots and is a competent finisher when opportunity strikes. Byrd should be fine on the floor as well. He is active and athletic on bottom and seems to have enough top to handle short time ride-outs or mitigate riding time advantages when necessary. Byrd may be better suited as a 125 pounder at this point, however last season Byrd jumped from high school 120 pounders to D1 133 pounders and was still generally able to move guys around and take territory. He’s had another year to get bigger and better so I don’t believe size will be too much of an issue. The 133 waters are always deep, but anything less than a trip to the NCAAs for a blue-chipper like Byrd would be a little disappointing. Best Wins: Byrd had a solid redshirt season but didn’t hit a ton of high-level guys. His best win was Indiana standout Cayden Rooks. He also had a nice win over solid Wildcat veteran Colin Valdiviez. Worst Losses: Byrd took 4 losses during his redshirt. All were to solid guys. An early season loss to Jordan Hamdan may have been his toughest loss of the year. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Guys like Jordan Decatur, Mike DeAugustino, and Boo Dryden will likely be the crowd fighting for those final few Big 10 qualifying positions. I am anxious to see where Byrd is with this tier of opponent. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Byrd is just a Freshman and appears to still have some room to grow into a full-sized 133. I would anticipate Byrd to remain the guy for a while. Illinois has capable depth in We Rachal and Maximo Renteria may project as a 133 as well. 141- Dylan Duncan- Sr. Breakdown: Much like Travis Piotrowski last year, Dylan Duncan’s hits his Senior season in Champaign having already accumulated 60+ career wins, three trips to the NCAAs, and enough quality wins to climb into the teens in the rankings. However, much like Travis Piotrowski last year, Duncan heads into his Senior season having consistently come up short against the nation’s elite. Duncan appears to be one of those gatekeeper types. He doesn’t have any NCAA hardware himself, but he generally doesn’t lose to anyone except for the guys competing for NCAA hardware. Up to this point, Duncan has been almost a perfect measuring stick for success. If you lose to Duncan, you are not quite ready for the big time. If you beat a guy as solid as Duncan, you have probably arrived and are ready make a run at NCAA hardware. Illini fans should expect another solid season, another NCAA appearance, but likely not enough elite wins to make it to Saturday at NCAAs. Duncan bumped up to 141 last season and the move appeared to be a pretty welcome one. Duncan looked definitively more active and was still wrestling strong late into the season. Piotrowski bumped up a weight class as a senior and surprised most by putting together a 27-4 senior season (with two wins over Sammy Alvarez) to vault from the middle of the rankings into the top 8. Here’s hoping that Duncan’s senior year looks the same. 141 is incredibly top heavy with Sebastian Rivera, Nick Lee, Jaydin Eierman, and Chad Red each considered high AA contenders. However, beyond these top contenders, the remaining field appears to be within in reach for a guy like Duncan. Maybe, just maybe, Duncan takes one final step forward and ends his Illini career in style on Saturday at NCAAS. Best Wins: Mitch McKee, Jason Renteria, John Erneste, Devin Schroder, Ian Parker Worst Losses: DJ Lloren and Parker Filius Most Anticipated Match-Up: I’m anxious to see if a highly touted youngsters Anthony Echemendia and Joey Silva can get past a guy like Duncan. A match-up with Minnesota transfer Michael Blockhus would also be fun. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: The Illini bring-in prep star Danny Pucino at 141. He’s a little off the national radar, but very tough. Illinois also landed a pair of Illini younger brothers in Michael Gunther and Trey Piotrowski both of whom project at 141. 149- Mikey Carr- Jr. Breakdown: Mikey Carr is my favorite current Illini wrestler. Mike Poeta once told me that Mikey Carr and Isaiah Martinez are the only two guys that he coached who train so hard that the coaching staff actually needs to force them to rest on occasion. How do you not pull for a kid like that? Unfortunately, Carr has missed two full seasons to injury and has pretty much been banged up for his entire Illini career. However, in his relatively brief window between injury, Carr has racked up a super-impressive hit list including the likes of Nick Lee, Chad Red, Tommy Thorn, Kanen Storr, Max Murin, Tristan Moran, and Mitch McKee. Carr’s success is nearly entirely predicated on relentless pace and effort. He prefers to wrestle from neutral where his offense is predicated on constant motion, repeated fakes, and a high-volume of leg attacks. His style demands a tremendous amount of output. It’s a style that tends to take a physical toll over the course of a long grueling season and can be problematic for a guy with Carr’s injury history. To that point, Carr has been limited by injury during the post-season every season so far. However, this season, Carr bumps up to 149 and perhaps the additional nutrition and strength from a bump up in weight class combined with the abbreviated 2021 covid schedule will be just the recipe that Carr needs to finally be relatively healthy in March. If so, I really love Carr’s chances to scratch and claw his way on to the NCAA podium. Best Wins: Nick Lee, Tommy Thorn, Chad Red, Max Murin, Kanen Storr, Mitch McKee, Tristan Moran Worst Losses: No “bad” losses. Career NCAA losses to Max Murin, Matt Findlay, and Sa’Derian Perry are all matches that I thought Carr would win. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Sammy Sasso, Brayton Lee, Max Murin, Yahya Thomas, and Kanen Storr will all be great match-ups with likely NCAA seeding implications. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: High upside recruit and NHSCA junior national champ E’lan Heard likely projects at 149. Luke Odom could also very well land at 149. 157 Johnny Mologousis- Jr. Breakdown: Eric Barone’s graduation means a changing of the guard at 157 for the Fighting Illini. The spot is certainly not settled at this point, but Johnny Mologousis appears to be the man most prepared for the job. Mologousis was a prep stand-out. He was a 2x IHSA state runner-up for former Illini great Griff Powell and had plenty of national exposure as a prep. He has three years of college wrestling under his belt and despite being a backup to this point, Mologousis has flashed an ability to compete with varsity level competition and has even pulled off a few signature wins. Mologousis is not a prolific leg attacker. He generally implements more of a counter offense style with go-behinds and re-attacks and he can frustrate opponents with an ability to far-ankle scramble out of danger. On the floor, Mologousis is tough on top and most proficient when riding legs with a power-half. It’s a top game that certain opponents can really struggle with, even some high quality opponents. This makes Mologousis a good bet in my mind to compete very solidly against the back half of the conference and to possibly steal a few high-level wins against guys who struggle with quality leg riders. With 157 being a little more navigable then most weight in the Big 10, a trip to NCAAs is not out of the question for Mologousis. Best Wins: Mologousis has careers wins over hammers Wyatt Sheets and Jarrett Jacques. Worst Losses: Mologousis had a number of close losses to solid guys last year. His worst loss was likely to OKSt freshman Jalin Harper. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: IHSA match-ups with Will Lewan, Fernie Silva, and Kendall Coleman would be entertaining. Waiting in the Wings at Illinois: Freshman Big Boarder Luke Odom likely projects as a 157 pounder. 165- Danny Braunagel- So. Breakdown: I was super-impressed with Braunagel’s freshman campaign and not just because he led the team with 23 wins and earned the #15 seed at NCAAs. What stood out even more, was the way Braunagel went about his business with a relentless drive to improve and tremendous will to win. His championship approach to training and competing raised the bar for the entire Illini squad. So much so, in fact, that Jim Heffernan named Braunagel and his twin brother Zac as captains of the team already as freshman. On the mat Braunagel is a total grinder. He is always coming forward hard, hand fighting, taking ground and attacking. He’s got a sneaky nice single leg and is a physical finisher when he gets to the legs. Guys who constantly push forward can at times struggle defensively, yet Braunagel is better defensively than most realize. He scrambles surprising well and does a lot of damage with short offense and re-attacks. On the mat, Braunagel’s game is likewise more-or-less predicated on pace and effort. In the top position, he brings toes-in-the-mat heavy forward pressure and hard mat returns. On bottom, it’s consistent motion, effort, and activity. The freshman version of Braunagel was already problems for most of the country, but not quite on par with the nation’s elite. I am certain that the sophomore version of Braunagel will be even better. Potential conference match-ups with 165 title contenders like Marinelli, Wick, and Carson Karchla will be great opportunities to see where Braunagel stands with the very best. While it may be a bit premature to suggest Braunagel is ready to go with these guys, it is certainly realistic to slot Braunagel just below the very best and squarely into fringe All-American territory with about a dozen or so other guys. These dozen guys can be found every year grinding through the backside of the NCAA bracket for three or four or five tough do-or-die matches. When it comes to sorting through this group of guys, I always lean towards the guys with the biggest will to win. In my mind, this gives Braunagel better than a puncher’s chance. Best Wins: Kennedy Monday, Zach Hartman, Cam Amine x 2 Worst Losses: Braunagel’s nine losses were all to national qualifiers. His most surprising loss was probably NIU national qualifier Izzak Olejnik. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: I’m looking forward to seeing Braunagel tangle with Marinelli and Karchla, but match-ups with the next tier guys like Joe Lee, Emil Soehnlen, Jacob Tucker, and Cam Amine may have a larger impact on his NCAA seed and his pathway to All-American. Waiting in the Wings: Illinois has home grown Kenny Kerstein backing up Braunagel who should be a career 165. 174- DJ Shannon- Fr. / David Riojas- Sr. Breakdown: The Illini have several options to replace Joey Gunther at 174 pounds. Veteran David Riojas has been around now for four seasons after being forced into starting duty prematurely as a true freshman in 2018. Riojas struggled through a brutal Big 10 schedule as a true freshman, but now, three years later, he is far better suited to compete. Last year Riojas entered the Midlands where he won two bouts and wrestled to a tough 4-0 loss to #6 Dylan Lydy suggesting that he has covered plenty of ground since 2018. Should Illinois start Riojas, expectations would be similar to those of Mologousis at 157. Illinois would be looking for Riojas to be competitive with the back half of the conference and to minimize damage against the conference’s elite. However, an alternative for the Illini may emerge in DJ Shannon. DJ Shannon took a slightly circuitous route to Champaign. A native of the East St. Louis area, Shannon prepped across the river in Missouri where he won three Missouri state titles. He originally committed to West Virginia, but decommitted after Sammy Henson departed. Shannon instead spent that year in Colorado Springs working with Kevin Jackson at the Elite Accelerator Program. He then signed with Illinois and redshirted last season. On the mat, Shannon is an exciting and explosive prospect with no limit to his ceiling. Like many elite prospects his offense is currently ahead of his defense and his neutral wrestling is ahead of his mat wrestling. When you put these ingredients together you get some really encouraging wins mixed with a few head-scratching losses. For example, during his year at the EAP, Shannon knocked off PSUs Joe Lee and gave Nate Carr a legitimate scare on his way to a 6th place finish at the US junior nationals. Likewise during his redshirt season at Illinois he knocked off #13 Anthony Mantanona. At the same time, Shannon takes some bad losses to guys that you might think Shannon just too talented to lose to. The Illini coaching staff may have to put a little extra developmental time with a prospect like Shannon, but at the end of the day, the juice could really be worth the extra squeeze with a kid this talented. Best Wins: Shannon has wins over Anthony Mantanona, Cody Surrat, and Fritz Shierl. Riojas pulled off a nice win over Maryland’s Phillip Spadafora. Worst Losses: Shannon’s worst loss was probably Oklahoma’s Elijah Joseph. Riojas dropped a bout to highly regarded freshman Nate Jiminez last year. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Match-ups with Drew Hughes, Bailee O’Reilly, or Joe Grello will likely be fairly indicative of Illinois chances of qualifying for NCAAs at 174. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Ohio State Champ and NHSCA Senior National runner-up Trey Sizemore is dropping to 174 and could factor in this competition as well. Illinois has also signed Dylan Connell who is chasing his 4th IHSA State Title this season and is going to be a really good one. 184- Zac Braunagel- So. Breakdown: Zac Braunagel also had an outstanding freshman season. He won 20 matches in a brutal 184-pound division and carried the 15th seed into the NCAA tournament. Braunagel deserves all the same credit as his brother for his championship mindset and for setting the bar in terms of hard work and commitment for the entire squad. Zac was also named captain of the team as a freshman. Zac Braunagel has an extensive greco background. He won a Fargo Greco National title in 2018, an US Junior Greco National title in 2019, and took 3rd in the US Senior Greco Nationals this summer. Not surprisingly, Braunagel’s folkstyle game reflects some of his greco prowess with a lot of effective hand fighting and control ties. A bit more surprisingly, Braunagel also brings solid leg attacks and leg attack defense to the party. His reattacks and short offense are among his best folkstyle weapons. Braunagel is proficient on the mat and rarely struggles to get away on bottom. His top game is equally solid. Perhaps more importantly, Braunagel never gets outworked or outhustled and seems to be constantly growing and improving. Unfortunately for Braunagel, despite earning the #15 seed at NCAAs as a freshman, three other Big 10 Freshman were seeded even higher in Rocky Jordan, Abe Assad, and Aaron Brooks. For the moment, Braungael is still looking up at this group along with Husker All-American Taylor Venz and Wolverine star Myles Amine. Still, Braunagel isn’t too far behind this group and seems to be gaining ground by the day. Braunagel upset seasoned Gopher NCAA runner-up Brett Pfarr in a freestyle match this offseason and then finished third at the Senior Nationals in greco, knocking off former age level world team member and Senior level WTT finalist Marcus Finau along the way. NCAA medals may yet be in the not-so-distant future for Braunagel, but they going to arrive. Best Wins: Braunagel knocked off Cameron Caffey, Nelson Brands, Billy Janzer twice, Jelani Embree twice, and Owen Webster. Worst Losses: Probably Max Lyon Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Just about every 184 matchup in the Big 10 is amazing. Braunagel did not hit Taylor Venz or Myles Amine last year, so I’m looking forward to those matchups. A matchup with Wisconsin transfer Chris Weiler will be fun as well. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Trey Sizemore would likely bulk up into this weight if it were necessary. 197- Matt Wroblewski- Jr. Breakdown: Matt Wroblewski will return as the starter for Illinois at 197 after an 11-15 sophomore season. Wroblewski was largely competitive in his first run as a starter but just didn’t translate enough of these competitive matches into victories to really arrive on the national scene. Wroblewski wrestles a bit more like a light weight than your typical 197. He’s got a little flash to his game. He’ll go inside trip, ankle pick, or attempt a toss. He’s got nice athletic entries to either side and shows a fairly consistent ability to get his hands locked around the legs. His problem is finishing once he gets there. Wroblewski is taller, leaner 197 and he seems to get horsed a little bit by the bigger thicker variety of 197s. He’ll tend to get stuffed and stretched out underneath or get his hands ripped too often when he gets to a standing single. Things look somewhat similar on the floor. Wroblewski has the ability to turn with tilts, legs, or cradles however he struggles to hold down bigger and stronger opponents who seem to be able to explode to their feet off the whistle and negate any opportunity to work from top. If Wroblewski can tidy up his finishes in neutral and find a way to shut down his opponents first move on top, he is capable of a significant step forward and possibly into ranking consideration. If he can not improve in these areas, then another season hovering around .500 will likely play out, leaving Wroblewski on the outside looking-in at NCAAs. Best Wins: Alex Hopkins, Marty Mueller, and Kevin Snyder Worst Losses: Wroblewski had no “bad” losses. All 15 were to guys with winning records. His toughest losses were probably to UTCs Rodney Jones or Missouri’s Wyatt Koelling. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: The IHSA match-ups in the conference will be fun as Jacob Warner, Eric Schultz, Cameron Caffey, Peter Christensen, and Wroblewski are all former IHSA champs. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: The Illini recently signed Joey Braunagel, the youngest and largest of the Braunagel brothers. He is a rising senior coming off a junior year state title and possessing many of the same characteristics as his brothers. Heavyweight- Luke Luffman- So. Breakdown: Man, wrestling heavyweight in the Big 10 was just ridiculously tough last season with the murderer’s row of Gable Steveson, Mason Parris, Anthony Cassioppi, and Trent Hillger, just to name a few. Luke Luffman jumped into this frying pan as a true freshman and acclimated himself quite nicely winning 17 matches and ultimately winding up as the only true freshman in the NCAA Championship heavyweight field. Luffman is a good one. He’s another young Illini starter with a 12-month competitive calendar, a penchant for hard work, and a championship character. Luffman has an extensive greco background which can be particularly useful against the larger heavyweights in the division. However, Luffman is also an athletic former HS 220 pounder with quality leg attacks, solid finishes, and high-level neutral defense which allows him to contend with the smaller more athletic heavies in the division. Luffman’s freestyle and greco are likely a little ahead of his folkstyle at this point. This is due mostly to a par terre game that is more dangerous than his current folkstyle top game. Luffman just earned an All-American medal in freestyle at the 2020 UWW U23 Nationals and he won both freestyle and greco national titles at Fargo in 2019. As Luffman gets bigger and stronger and he makes the requisite adjustments to D1 folkstyle mat wrestling, he should ascend further and further up the rankings and ultimately contend for Big 10 titles and national honors. However, this ascension is not going to happen this year in a Big 10 heavyweight field which may be actually approaching all-time levels with the return of Steveson, Parris, Hillger, and Cassioppi plus the additions of age level World Champion Kerkvliet and talented Ohio State transfer Tate Orndorff. It’s likely going to have to be the iron sharpening iron thing for another year for Luffman. He will surely take some losses at the hands of this talented crew, however, he will be very battle-tested and prepared for all-comers by the time he hits the mats at the NCAA Championships in March. Best Wins: Thomas Penola, Bobby Heald, Alex Esposito, and Jordan Earnest Worst Losses: All losses were to NCAA qualifiers. An early season loss to Max Ihry may have been his toughest. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Luffman missed Cassioppi last season. I’d like to see that match-up of IHSA champions. Match-ups with Indiana transfer Garrett Hoffman as well as Christian Lance, Christian Rebattaro, and Christian Colucci surely have NCAA implications. Waiting in the Wings: Illinois added Sandburg heavyweight Mike Bosco to the room this year. Team Breakdown: The Illini had a nice 10-4 bounce-back season in 2019-20 which included notable victories over Missouri, Rutgers, Northwestern, and Michigan. Perhaps more impressively, the Illini accomplished all of this with arguably their best wrestler, Mikey Carr, out with an injury and four Freshman in the starting lineup. The Illini’s recent efforts to shift their recruiting focus back home to Illinois seems to have paid dividends as Illinois led the nation with eight homegrown NCAA qualifiers. Additionally, Illinois’s decision to bring Bryan Medlin in to oversee the Illinois Regional Training Center seems to have also paid dividends. Medlin’s reputation as an outstanding greco coach saw the migration of senior level greco standouts Max Nowry, Ellis Coleman, Joe Rau, Travis Rice, and West Cathcart to Champaign to train with Medlin. It also helped usher in a collegiate roster littered with their own greco accolades. Cardani owns a 3rd place medal from Fargo in greco. Lucas Byrd made a greco world team. Dylan Duncan took 2nd in greco at fargo. Danny Braunagel was a greco all-american. Zach Braunagel and Luke Luffman were each greco national champions. Additionally, Illini reserves We Rachal, Luke Odom, and Michael Gunther were each Fargo greco all-americans. The presence of Medlin and the IRTC seems to be attractive to prep recruits who excel at greco and who want a 12-month training environment with a staff who can build on their high level greco skill set. The past few off-seasons have seen Illini wrestlers hit the podium at Junior Nationals, U23 Nationals, and most recently at the 2020 Senior Nationals where Danny Braunagel took 7th in freestyle and Zach Braunagel finished 3rd in greco. This off-season success should excite Illini fans because it is a strong indication of a winning culture being developed and taking root. I spoke with coach Heffernan briefly at the IHSA state tournament and I asked him for his impressions of the team. Heffernan almost immediately referenced the team’s character and made special mention of the maturity and commitment he was seeing from the youngsters like Braunagels, Cardani, and Luffman. Heffernan seemed genuinely excited for this group. This season’s lineup will once again be a young one with six underclassmen projected to start and only one senior in Dylan Duncan. The Fighting Illini will not yet be ready to contend with the nation’s elite for a team trophy, but they will be a hardnosed and well-prepared team-on-the-rise. The Illini should enjoy their share of dual meet success and once again qualify a nice contingent of individuals to the Big Dance. More importantly, with the requisite culture in place, Illini fans should enjoy watching this team continue to collectively improve and grow towards eventual realistic expectations of competing for a team trophy. If this group is a special as Heffernan says, they just might be the group to finally get it done.
  4. 125- Travis Piotrowski- Sr. Breakdown: Three-time NCAA qualifier Travis Piotrowski returns for his final run. Piotrowski is seasoned veteran performer. He boasts an impressive 60-win career with 5 career NCAA wins and enough quality wins to climb as high as the mid-teens in the rankings. Despite all of this success, however, Piotrowski has up to now come up just a little short against the nation’s elite. He appears to be one of those higher-floor but somewhat lower-ceiling guys who make the really nice building blocks of a program, but who seldom end up with much individual glory. Piotrowski is exciting to watch. He gets to legs often and will go for broke when opponents hang around upstairs. He uses his length well and can scramble well making attacks difficult to finish. He is plenty proficient on the floor and is a game competitor who wrestles hard bell-to-bell. The only thing Piotrowski really lacks appears to be the elite athleticism to go with the very best of the best. I would love to see Piotrowski make a late-career jump and get on the podium, but another solid season, a 4th trip to NCAAs, and a round of 16 finish appears to be a more likely landing spot for this solid veteran warrior. Best Wins: Sean Fausz, Drew Mattin, Conor Youtsey, Zeke Moisey, Jay Schwarm, Brandon Paetzell Worst Losses: Almost all of Piotrowski’s losses have been to highly ranked opponents. Worst loss of last year was probably losing at NCAAs to Jay Schwarm after beating him 5-1 during the regular season. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: It feels like after 3 season, we know where Piotrowski falls. He will likely lose to Lee, Rivera, and Foley. He will likely beat Cray, Mattin, Schroder, and Teske. Leaving the match-ups with the blue-chip newcomers like Eric Barnett, Pat McKee, and Alex Thomsen as the potentially most intriguing. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Top ranked prep 120 pounder Lucas Byrd chose Champaign after decommitting to Maryland. Byrd will redshirt. The Illini also have a good one in Justin Cardani. Cardani had an excellent redshirt and flashed real starter potential by beating guys like Colin Valdiviez, Brandon Cray, Cevion Severado, Elijah Oliver, and Brandon Courtney, just to name a few. 133- ?? Breakdown: I feel like this shouldn’t happen at a major program in a power wrestling conference, especially in a state with premier prep talent, but this will likely be the fifth straight season in which the Illini will need to patch a hole in their lineup with a try hard guy who was never really intended to be an everyday starter. They do have a few 133 options in the building. As discussed above, they have three quality 125ers in Piotrowski, Justin Cardani, and Lucas Byrd. Any one of these three could bump up to 133 and be respectable, but Piotrowski is a senior who has competed his entire career at 125, Cardani is small enough that he competed at 113 pounds as a HS Senior, and Lucas Byrd is projected to redshirt. That leaves true freshman and Fargo AA Domenic Zaccone, but he is also likely to redshirt. In the absence of any of these four guys, the Illini are likely to turn to a walk-on type like Josh Contreras. Contreras stepped in for a few duals last season and took one for the team. This type of tough duty is difficult enough to watch in small doses. Watching it for an entire Big 10 season is downright painful. At least DeSanto and Gross aren’t on the dual meet schedule. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Previously mentioned Lucas Byrd and Justin Cardani will likely spread out and nicely solidify 125-133 for Illinois in the coming years. Domenic Zaccone and Fargo champ commit Fabian Lopez should project to be nice 133 assets as well. 141- Dylan Duncan- Jr Breakdown: Dylan Duncan’s second varsity season started with understandably high expectations. He came to college with rare prep pedigree, once winning a Fargo bracket ahead of both Yianni D. and Vito Arujau. Duncan followed up his stellar prep career with a truly impressive rookie season which culminated in a third-place finish at Big 10s and a strong NCAA performance. Heading into his Sophomore season, all things appeared on-track for greatness. And then Duncan’s Sophomore season happened. Duncan simply wasn’t particularly good last year. He failed to notch a true quality win the entire season and hit a career low when he was DQ’d on stall calls against DeSanto at Midlands. Duncan faded even further by the end of the season. He was clearly running on fumes when he just squeaked into the NCAA field and turned in an 0-2 result, losing badly to Devin Turner to mercifully put the season to bed. It was a remarkably disappointing season for a guy who had done nothing but impress to this point. So, what happened? A precipitous drop in performance AND a very noticeable late season fade is usually evidence of an overzealous weight-cut. With the 2020 Illinois roster now listing Duncan as a 141 pounder, it appears that Duncan and the Illini brass have arrived at the same conclusion. A season now spent training and improving instead of weight cutting will almost assuredly revitalize the now veteran junior. Still the likes of Nick Lee, Chad Red, Max Murin, Tristan Moran, Joey Silva, and Mitch McKee will present plenty of landmines in what appears to be one of the deepest weight classes in the Big 10. I, for one, expect an optimized Duncan to acclimate himself quite well to these new surroundings. If he can pull-off a few wins against this aforementioned group, a career back on track and an NCAA seed isn’t out of the question. Best Wins: Mitch McKee, Jason Renteria, John Erneste, Corey Keener Worst Losses: Jens Lantz, Devan Turner Most Anticipated Match-Up: If they go 141, possible match-ups with Wolverine star freshman Joey Silva or IHSA star Yahya Thomas would be fun. I would also love to see a DeSanto rematch up at 141 with Duncan’s gas tank full. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: The Illini have a verbal commit from prep stars Danny Pucino and Luke Odom. They also have talented youngster and Fargo Greco finalist We Rachal in the room. 149- Mikey Carr- Jr. Breakdown: Mikey Carr is currently my favorite Illini wrestler. He has many of wrestling’s greatest ingredients; high character, toughness, and tremendous will. Carr has racked up an impressive hit list including the likes of Nick Lee, Chad Red, Tommy Thorn, Kanen Storr, Max Murin, Tristan Moran, and Mitch McKee all in what amounts to a about a season and a half on the mats. Carr inflicts the bulk of his damage in neutral with volume leg attacks and relentless pace, essentially wearing opponents down until they can simply no longer hold off the assault. It’s really a very Hawkeye-like approach. This high-effort style makes Carr an Illini favorite, but it also comes at a cost. It demands a tremendous workload and it tends to take a physical toll over the course of a long grueling season. Furthermore, executing a game plan predicated on pace and pressure generally requires that all cylinders are firing to be effective. Even a 10% drop in volume and pace can significantly impact results. Unfortunately for Carr, a plague of injuries and missed time has really made it difficult for him to be firing on all cylinders at crunch time. As a result, too few of Carr’s signature wins have come in March. This has left some to question just how high Carr’s true ceiling may be. This is fair at first glance, but with a little closer inspection, it’s not hard to see that Carr has the ability, character, and will to beat the nation’s best on any given day despite two disappointing NCAA tournaments. My hope is that a bigger stronger body and ample nutrition might be a reasonable remedy to Carr’s March struggles. I like how he projects at 149 and expect to see a stronger version of Carr left standing at the finish line this time around. Here’s hoping the questions end this coming March when Mikey Carr hits the 149 podium. Best Wins: Nick Lee, Tommy Thorn, Chad Red, Max Murin, Kanen Storr, Mitch McKee, Tristan Moran Worst Losses: No “bad” losses. Career NCAA losses to Max Murin, Matt Findlay, and Sa’Derian Perry are all matches that I thought Carr would win. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: A glut of talented youngsters awaits at 149. Matches with Jared Verkleeren, Sammy Sasso, Brayton Lee, and Yahya Thomas will certainly be among the most anticipated. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Either of Danny Pucino or Luke Odom could grow into this weight. Illinois also has Demarius Smith in the room. He could develop into a legit contributor. 157 Eric Barone- Sr. Breakdown: Barone had a really, really nice bounce back Junior season. Few outside of Champaign may have noticed, but Barone quietly knocked off heavy hitters Mike D’Angelo, Griffin Parriott, Jarrett Jacques, Ke-Shawn Hayes, and Kaleb Young last season. He went on to win 2 matches at NCAA before ultimately bowing out in double overtime to Minnesota’s Steve Bleise. This was a pretty impressive turn-around season from a guy who had flashed, but never finished with a winning record in his first two varsity seasons. Barone has a unique style and it seems to give even some of the toughest opponents absolute fits. Barone has a somewhat limited arsenal of traditional leg attacks, but he is remarkably stingy on defense. He is a physical hand fighter who slows down opponents with control ties, he’s hippy when guys get past the hands, and then he frustrates opponents with rare flexibility when guys get to his knees and ankles. Picture Nico Megaludis with an opponent in on his leg but in the full splits keeping the other leg away to fend off the score. Barone is also difficult to ride, allowing him to get his escape and to generally avoid riding time. This combination keeps him in a lot of matches. Now as a seasoned and confident veteran, Barone’s got the metal to secure the late takedown or to win the key scramble to pull out the victory. I’m not sure, given his offensive limitations, that Barone can string enough tight wins together to make his way to the NCAA podium, but I am certain that Barone will be one of those dangerous NCAA draws that no one will be too happy to see in their path come March. Best Wins: Kaleb Young, Ke-Shawn Hayes, Jarrett Jacques, Mike D’Angelo, Griffin Parriott, Josh Maruca, Logan Parks, BC LaPrade Worst Losses: Ten of Barone’s losses were to guys named Nolf, Berger, Deakin, Panteleo, and Ke-Shawn Hayes. Barone really had no bad losses. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: IHSA match-ups with Jacob Tucker, Shayne Oster, Will Lewan, and Kendall Coleman would be entertaining. Match-ups with Young, Hayes, Berge, and Deakin will likely define his ceiling. Waiting in the Wings at Illinois: Johnny Mologousis is a capable back-up with early career wins over Missouri and OKSt starters Jarrett Jacques and Wyatt Sheets. The Illini also have a verbal from exciting LaSalle HS star E’lan Heard. Joey Gunther’s little brother Michael will also join the Illini next year. 165- Danny Braunagel- Fr. Breakdown: I’m making the assumption that senior Joey Gunther will be returning to 174 to allow hard-nosed freshman Danny Braunagel to break into the Illini line-up. Braunagel is a good one. He arrived in Champaign with 2 state titles and a Fargo stop sign. He’s done nothing but impress since his arrival, most recently shining at the US Open by knocking off Peyton Mocco, Julian Ramirez, and Travis Wittlake on his way to the junior division finals. Braunagel’s approach and style remind me of a larger version of former Illini star Zane Richards. Braunagel is bulldog tough bringing high intensity, pace, and frequent attacks to every fight. Like Richards before him, he’s also a seasoned freestyle and Greco practitioner making him comfortable in ties, accomplished in the hand-fight, and good at taking territory. Finally, and perhaps most reminiscent of Richards, Braunagel has a championship mindset, which is to say, he’s singularly focused on becoming a champion and willing to commit to the requisite lifestyle to get that done. Braunagel may have some ground to cover with regards to folkstyle top wrestling, but he has all the ingredients to find a reasonable level of immediate success. More importantly, he seems to have the drive to ultimately contend for Big 10 titles and national medals. Best Wins: Braunagel had limited exposure to top line opponents as a redshirt. Probably Nate Higgins and Brady Jennings. Worst Losses: Jake Allar Most Anticipated Match-Ups: I can’t wait to see Braunagel scrap with the 165 pound titans in the conference like Vincenzo, Marinelli, Wick, and Isaiah White. He will have a difficult time breaking into that group, but the next tier down appears to be very much in reach making matchups with guys like Drew Hughes, Jake Allar, Kaleb Romero, and Tyler Morland pretty important. Waiting in the Wings: Super exciting missouri prep star DJ Shannon is enrolled at Illinois. He will likely shirt this season while Gunther finishes up. Then either he or Braunagel will bulk their way up to 174. 174- Joey Gunther- Sr. Breakdown: Joey Gunther returns for a final run and as previously mentioned I suspect it will be at 174. Gunther has already logged 113 collegiate matches, winning 74. He has qualified for the big dance three times and has four NCAA tournament victories to his credit. He is the definition of a grizzled veteran. Gunther is savvy and tough. He hand-fights really well and is difficult to get out of position, allowing him to hang around with just about anybody. Gunther does lack some of the elite athleticism and explosiveness of his Big 10 rivals. Every single point Gunther scores requires a lot of hard work and that gets to be a tough way to make a living come March. Regardless of the effort required, Gunther is almost sure to grind through another 18-20 win season of hard work and want-to and qualify for his fourth NCAAs. He may even approach 100 career wins before all is said and done. Given some of his offensive limitations, making a deep run in March may indeed be difficult to forecast. Despite this, and despite some recent Kyle Bratke shade, tons of respect for a guy who has battled every inch of the way and done a lot of winning. Best Wins: Branson Ashworth, Devin Skatzka, Dylan Lydy, Connor Flynn, Nick Wanzek, Drew Hughes, Luke Zilverberg Worst Losses: Gunther seemed to fade a little bit late last year and took a few upset losses. Losses to Carson Brolsma and Tyler Morland come to mind. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: The Big 10 tier just below Mark Hall and Michael Kemerer boasts names like Devin Skatzka, Mikey Labriola, Dylan Lydy, and Joe Grello. These will be huge bouts for Gunther if he is to set up himself up for a final March run. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: DJ Shannon or Danny Braunagel will likely bulk their way up to 174 for next season. Illinois also has a third Lasalle HS star in Trey Sizemore in the room. 184- Zach Braunagel- Fr. Breakdown: Much like his brother, Zach Braunagel arrived in Champaign with impressive credentials. He also brought two state titles and a Fargo stop sign with him to Champaign. Much like his brother, Zach also got on campus and immediately went to work with single-minded focus and rare intensity. The work appears to be paying dividends. Braunagel had a very impressive summer making the finals of the US Open in junior freestyle, winning the US Open in junior Greco, winning the Pan-Am Championships in junior freestyle, and competing at the World Championships in junior Greco. Zach Braunagel hand fights hard, as one might expect from a Greco world team member, but he also pops off his share of folk/free leg attacks. His intensity and pace are problematic for opponents and again his approach and will-to-win are exemplary. Braunagel’s Greco and freestyle are likely currently a bit ahead of his folkstyle. Some time to transition to division-one folkstyle wrestling is to be expected, but this transition tends to be less pronounced at these upper weights where guys hand fight in neutral and are rarely dynamic on the floor. Expect Braunagel to compete well right out of the gate. He may take a few early losses, but he will be a very tough out by March. Exciting things are ahead for this kid. Best Wins: Braunagel had limited exposure to top line opponents as a redshirt. Probably division II runner-up Nick Foster. Worst Losses: Jacob Covaciu, Danny Bush Most Anticipated Match-Ups: 184 will once again be loaded in the Big 10. Shakur Rasheed, Taylor Venz, and Cash Wilke are the headliners, but the second tier is deep and talented with Cameron Caffrey, Jelani Embree, Max Lyon, Johnny Sebastian, Jack Jessen, Owen Webster, and Gavin Hoffman all capable of being top 20 guys. The Illini have Caffrey, Embree, Jessen, Hoffman, and Lyon on the dual schedule. These will be critical bouts for Braunagel. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: 184 is pretty thin behind Braunagel. This will be a recruiting focus for Illinois is the coming years. Trey Sizemore could ultimately grow into this weight and be a more than capable option here. 197- Matt Wroblewski- So. Breakdown: The Illini will have a new face at 197 as Matt Wroblewski steps into the fray following four consecutive seasons of Andre Lee. Wroblewski brings a completely different look to the weight for the Illini. He’s a bit unconventional and a little funky, which is fun at a weight that tends to feature a lot of head snaps and blast double legs. Wroblewski’s done a fair amount of training and wrestling in Poland and brings something of a European style to the mat. That is to say, he’s a little more Yianni than Zain. He’s not going to bludgeon opponents with super-physical hand fighting and push people around the mat, but he will wrestle intelligently and creatively to generate angles and offense. He won’t stuff shots and look to go-behind, but he will slip the corner and look to lock through the crotch or hook the near leg. He’s dangerous in scrambles, equally dangerous on top, and can score in a variety of different ways. All that being said, the Big 10 talent at this weight is pretty ridiculous with Kollin Moore, Kyle Conel, Jacob Warner, Lucas Davison, Eric Schultz, Christian Brunner, Hunter Ritter, Jackson Striggow, and Mason Reinhardt. Expect a fun ride with Wroblewski creating some surprisingly competitive matches against some of the nation’s elite. In the end, navigating this super talented field may be a bit much to ask, but the future certainly looks bright for this youngster. Here’s hoping there’s enough wins on the schedule to sneak into the NCAA field and gain some valuable big-dance experience. Best Wins: Marty Mueller, Kevin Snyder, and Brad Wilton Worst Losses: No bad ones. DII All-American Ryan Vasbinder and probably teammate Andre Lee were his worst. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: The IHSA match-ups in the conference will be fun as Christian Brunner, Jacob Warner, Eric Schultz, and Wroblewski are all former IHSA champions. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: IHSA State Champion Ramin Abraham is an interesting long-term prospect coming off the soccer field to win state at 197 pounds. He’s got athletic upside and is just scratching the surface of his wrestling potential. Heavyweight- Brian Burns- Jr. Breakdown: Heavyweight in the Big 10 is pretty ridiculous. With names like Cassar, Steveson, Cassioppi, Hillger, Parris, and Kerkvliet, you’ve got to be a pretty serious talent just to remain among the living. Fortunately, the Illini appear to have just such a talent in Luke Luffman. Luffman doubled at Fargo last year and ended his prep career as a 6-time Fargo finalist and a 3-time champ. He has excellent hands and feet for a heavyweight and uses both really well to create great angles and crisp attacks. Luffman should solidify heavyweight in Champaign for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately for Illini fans, that foreseable future will probably start after a redshirt season. If Luffman does indeed redshirt, it would leave Brian Burns as the guy most likely to get that call at 285 for the 2020 Illini season. Burns is a bulked up 197 pounder who bumped up to heavy late last year and represented himself reasonably well. He’s a tough kid who will go hard. He’s got good mobility and leg attacks for a heavy. With an entire off-season to get bigger and adapt to heavyweight, Burns could be surprisingly game and hang around with most run-of-the-mill heavies. Unfortunately, very few of these run-of-the-mill heavies reside in the Big 10. Best Wins: Blake Wolters, Jack Heyob Worst Losses: His worst heavyweight loss was probably ASU’s Brady Gilliland-Daniel Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Purdue, Indiana, Maryland, and Northwestern may represent the only opportunities to pull out a conference win. Fortunately for Burns, all four are on the schedule. Waiting in the Wings: 3-time Fargo Champ Luke Luffman Team Breakdown: Despite the optics of a down performance on the mats in 2019, I would argue that the Illini brass have managed to improve the overall health and outlook of the program substantially by making strides in three critical areas. First, the Orange and Blue clearly made in-state recruiting a priority and it seems to be paying off. They replaced Mark Perry with Mike Poeta, an IHSA and Illini legend with strong ties to the Illinois club and HS scene, and the in-state recruiting has improved significantly with Cardani, Zaccone, Lopez, Pucino, Odom, Rachal, Braunagel, Braunagel, and Luffman each being national level kids who chose to stay home and wrestle for the Illini. Second, the Illini have managed to maintain a modest national reach and when they’ve reached out of state it’s been for elite talent like Mikey Carr, Lucas Byrd, DJ Shannon, Trey Sizemore, and E’lan Heard. #1 ranked Lucas Byrd choosing Champaign over Happy Valley is notable. Third, the Illini have made a deeper commitment to developing the Illinois Regional Training Center by bringing in Bryan Medlin. Bryan Medlin was the driving force behind Illinois’s unparalleled junior-level greco dynasty. He’s passionate, knowledgeable, and very well respected. The impact of Medlin’s arrival has been profound. The IRTC sent Ellis Coleman, Max Nowry, and Zach Braunagel to the World Championships this year alone. The IRTC saw I-Mar reach Final-X and both Zane Richards and Travis Rice finish 3rd at the US Open. Danny and Zach Brunagel both reached the US Open Junior finals and both won gold at the Pan-Am Championships. Nick Dardanes moved from Iowa City to Champaign to train at the IRTC. Between the influx of homegrown talent, elite out of state talent, and senior level Olympic hopefuls, there are suddenly a large volume of really tough guys walking around the streets of Champaign, Illinois. That is great news for the program. Much of the more elite talent is young, so it may take another season or two to completely translate in the standings. This season’s lineup may still have a few frustrating holes while Illini fans patiently wait for guys like Lucas Byrd and Luke Luffman. Still, the rising tide of talent in the room should elevate all Illini ships, and that includes this season’s squad. The schedule is certainly Big-10 tough, but also considerably more manageable than last season’s meat grinder. Add it all up and the Illini should have a nice bounce back year with plenty of dual success, several individuals with a chance to make some noise at NCAAs, and a nice crop of talent waiting in the wings.
  5. Wow, tough crowd. I like several Sooners. Christian Moody is a solid vet at 125. Kayne MacCallum is a very solid veteran transfer from Eastern Mich. Davion Jeffries always flashes a very high ceiling. Dom Demas and Anthony Mantanona have crazy upside. Jake Woodley is coming off a 19-3 redshirt where he beat Jacob Warner. Jake Boyd is coming off a 12-1 redshirt where he beat Jake Woodley. Justin Thomas is tough. They also have some nice talent coming in like Anthony Madrigal and Niko Chavez. They'll be competitive by the end of this season and even better moving forward.
  6. David Taylor entered the Yarygin, Pan-Ams, Yosur Dogu, and the World Cup this year. He won them all. He also won every individual event that he entered in 2017. Team USA took 2nd in the 2017 World Cup, but Taylor beat everyone including pinning the reigning World Champ. The Turk kid won nothing, ever. Still he got seeded above Taylor. There is no rational justification.
  7. Would a guy who won nothing this entire year and took 5th in his conference be seeded #1? Great system.
  8. So, Fatih Erdin of Turkey whose highest World Championship finish was 9th at the 2014 Junior World and whose highest finish at a freaking continental is 5th is the #1 seed AND the defending World and Olympic Champion Yazdani Charati is unseeded. Makes perfect sense. Burroughs and Chamizo have combined for 8 World and Olympic titles. No one else in the bracket has any. Let's put them on the on the same side. That seems reasonable. Throw Sidakov on that side as well. Why not? Hopefully, Snyder and Sadulaev can meet in the prelims! What a travesty. The UWW continues to make a complete mockery of the World and Olympic Championships. Incomprehensibly ridiculous seeding, unbalanced brackets, incomplete wrestle-backs, officiating for sale, and blatantly dirty Russian athletes just continues year after year. I'm at wit's ends. These guys work their whole lives for these opportunities and get completely railroaded by the willful ignorance of the governing body. They deserve so much better.
  9. 125- Travis Piotrowski- Jr. Breakdown: Piotrowski has somewhat quietly put together two solid seasons in Champaign. He has earned two trips to the big dance winning a match at NCAAs as a Frosh and two matches at NCAAs last season. Piotrowski is a high paced go-go type. He can score in a variety of ways in neutral with quality leg attacks, good length for countering, and a surprising propensity for going up top and throwing. He is tough on top but will struggle on bottom against top hammers. Piotrowski thus far has been a consistent performer whose resume boasts numerous quality wins and very few bad losses. However, Piotrowski is yet to knock off a true top-tier opponent. He seems to have a high floor, but questions about how high his ceiling can go will remain until he delivers a highly ranked win. Best Wins: Sean Fausz, Drew Mattin, Conor Youtsey, Elijah Oliver, Jay Schwarm, Josh Kramer, Brandon Courtney Worst Losses: Nothing terrible. Probably Johnny Jiminez and a few head scratchers early in his true frosh season. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Wrestling 125 in the Big 10 means dealing with Spencer Lee, Nick Suriano, Sebastian Rivera, and now Zeke Moisey and Sean Russell. Piotrowski is currently 0-5 against these guys. Piotrowski has never hit RayVon Foley, Connor Brown, Sean Russell, or Gavin Teasedale. They’re all on the dual meet schedule this season. I am anxious to see where he stacks up in that group. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Multi-time Fargo All-American Justin Cardani will redshirt this season and the Illini have a verbal from 2018 Fargo champion Fabian Lopez. 133- Dylan Duncan- So. Breakdown: First and foremost, Dylan Duncan has not jumped weight classes since his 2015 Junior year of HS. The cut has become significant and the time to bump up may have finally arrived. We’ll see what happens, but I’m guessing we see both Duncan and Mikey Carr up a weight class in 2018. Whatever the weight class, Duncan is unquestionably talented. He arrived in Champaign with a terrific prep pedigree and has been winning at an elite level for years. (He beat Yianni D in the cadet finals at Fargo way back in 2014.) Duncan turned in a strong 20-9 freshman campaign really flashing at Big 10s where he upended Mitch McKee and Jason Renteria on his way to a 3rd place finish. Duncan wrestles an efficient style. He is hard to get out of position making him difficult to attack and a good scrambler making him difficult to finish on. Duncan is not a volume shooter but is a high percentage finisher when he gets to the legs. He prefers legs on top and while not yet a prolific turner, he is a tough guy to shake. He’s very seasoned and his big match experience and poise belies his age. The 133 waters will be very deep once again in the Big 10 with guys like Micic, Pletcher, Lizak, RBY, and DeSanto, just to name a few. Outside of Micic, I believe Duncan can compete effectively with this group. With a few wins he could push for a possible seed at NCAAs. He could have been seeded this past season, but the committee instead seeded Mitch McKee with a worse record, a worse Big 10 finish, and a head to head loss to Duncan. Go figure. If Duncan does bump up to 141, the Illini will likely look to either Jacob Silzer or Abdullah Assaf at 133. Both are talented youngsters who have flashed D1 ability, but either one would likely struggle through the Big 10 meatgrinder. Best Wins: Mitch McKee, Jason Renteria, John Erneste, Corey Keener Worst Losses: Colin Valdiviez, Sean Nickell Most Anticipated Match-Up: If he remains at 133, I’m excited to see Duncan square off with Lizak and RBY. Duncan vs DeSanto would also be a fun matchup of contrasting styles. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Fabian Lopez may project at 133. Abdullah Assaf and Jacob Silzer are both IHSA stars with eligibility remaining beyond this season. 141- Mikey Carr- So. Breakdown: Mikey Carr is fast becoming the engine of this young Illini team. He embraces hard work and commits to a championship lifestyle. Illini coaches describe Carr as one of two guys who train so fanatically that they need to force him to occasionally take a break. The other guy being Isaiah Martinez. Carr’s intensity shows in his matches where his pace and volume shooting are seriously problematic for opponents. He is outstanding in neutral and relies heavily on the takedown game to wear down opponents. He is a high effort guy on the floor, if not still developing a bit in this area of his game. Carr’s freshman season was outstanding amassing 20 wins, reaching the Big 10 finals, and coming agonizingly close to an All-American finish at NCAAs. Although less heralded than fellow freshman 141s Nick Lee and Chad Redd, he beat them both head to head. I don’t bet against guys with this kind of motor and makeup. Whether at 141 or up at 149, I believe Carr will outwork and outwill his way to the podium in 2019. Best Wins: Nick Lee, Tommy Thorn, Chad Red, Vince Turk, Brent Moore, Nick Gil, Cole Weaver Worst Losses: No “bad” losses. The NCAA blood round loss to Sa’Derian Perry was a heart breaker. He dropped a bout to Max Murin at Midlands. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: I am anxious to see continued rivalries with Nick Lee and Chad Redd for 3 more years. Match-ups with Mitch McKee, Murin, and possibly Ke-Shawn Hayes would be equally big. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Illini recently inked prep star Danny Pucino and they have two talented youngsters on campus in Dylan Thurston and We Rachal. 149- Eric Barone- Jr. Breakdown: After qualifying for NCAAs as a Freshman, Barone struggled through a 9-15 sophomore campaign. He’s a tough positional wrestler who is difficult to score on, but who seems to lack a real go-to attack and struggles to put offensive points on the board. Put that all together and you get a season full of close losses, but not enough wins to qualify for NCAAs in the brutal Big 10. Barone hung with some tough guys including sudden victory with AJ Bannister and Jaren Glosser, tie-breakers with Jason Tsirtsis, and one takedown margins with Sorenson, Bleise, DeLuca, and Zander Wick. But all of those were losses. Barone competes close enough that with some incremental progress, one could envision an above .500 season and a return to the NCAAs. However, unless Barone finds a way to develop some reliable offense it could continue to be “close but no cigar”. Barone could find himself struggling for a spot in the lineup if both Duncan and Carr jump up a weight. Barone is definitely big enough to go 157 but would likely have close competition from Carver James or Johnny Mologousis for that spot. Best Wins: His best career win was Josh Maruca his freshman year. Dante Rodriguez, Anthony Giraldo Worst Losses: Austin Nash, Jwan Britton Most Anticipated Match-Ups: With Zain and Sorenson out, 149 looks considerably less terrifying. Still Anthony Ashnault, Patricia Lugo, Ke-Shawn Hayes, Tommy Thorn, and Brady Berge are no picnic. Assuming that tier is a little out of reach, how Barone does with the mid-tier of the conference will likely determine the relative success of his season. Cole Martin, Malik Amine, Jaden Enriquez, and Collin Purinton are those types of match-ups. Waiting in the Wings at Illinois: Demarius Smith showed some nice flashes as a true freshman. Any of Pucino, Thurston, or Rachal could grow into this weight class. 157- Carver James- Jr. or Johnny Mologousis- Fr. Breakdown: 157 is up in the air for the Illini. As mentioned previously, we could see Barone move up. Otherwise, it could be Carver James or Johnny Mologousis. James was a 3x IHSA small division champion. He’s been in Champaign for three seasons but has had some difficulty staying healthy. He turned in a solid redshirt freshman year but has only wrestled 10 matches over the past two seasons. Mologousis was a 2x IHSA large division finalist. James is more seasoned, but Mologousis might afford a little more offensive upside. He takes a few more risks in neutral and is the more dynamic guy in the top position. Whether Barone, James, or Mologousis, the sledding is going to be tough. The Illini dual schedule brings in Jason Nolf, Micah Jordan, Alec Pantaleo, Tyler Berger, Ryan Deakin, Steve Bleise, Kaleb Young, Zander Wick, and Jacob Tucker. There may not be a winnable bout on that slate. Barone and James are probably best equipped to minimize the bonus damage but conference wins are likely to be scarce. Best Wins: Carver James’ best win is a freshman year win over Joey Gunther. Johnny Mologousis’ best win was probably over Okie State Cowboy Wyatt Sheets. Worst Losses: Carver James hasn’t really taken bad losses. Phillip DeLoach from Missouri may be his worst. Mologousis dropped one to NAIA All-American Tobias Barnes of Missouri Valley. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: As previously mentioned, the dual meet schedule doesn’t offer many compelling match-ups. Kaleb Young, Zander Wick, Steve Bleise, and Jacob Tucker may represent an outside chance for an upset. Waiting in the Wings at Illinois: Demarius Smith, Eddie Ordonez, Kenny Kerstein, Baan Rachal 165- Joey Gunther- Jr. Breakdown: Gunther returns home to Illinois and returns to 165 after manning 174 for the Black and Gold last season. Heavy hands and hard pace. I love Gunther’s guts and grit. He is a classic-style grinder and will add some veteran leadership and toughness to the Illini. 165 is extremely deep and again the schedule brings most of the heavy hitters. Vincenzo Joseph, Logan Massa, Alex Marinelli, Isaiah White, and Evan Wick are all on the slate. Gunther will sweat and bleed through another meatgrinder. He’ll win a high percentage of his bouts and hang around with most of the superstars. The question is this, will he make a deeper run in March? He has all the trimmings of a round-of-12 try-hard guy, but sometimes those guys have a way of willing themselves onto the podium. I certainly hope that happens for this kid. True warrior. Best Wins: Dylan Lydy, Nick Wanzek, Branson Ashworth, Devin Skatzka, Drew Hughes Worst Losses: Another guy who doesn’t really take “bad” losses. Worst loss last year was probably Jordan Pagano. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: I can’t wait to see Gunther battle Alex Marinelli. Isaiah White presents an all-IHSA battle. I am anxious to see if he can really test Massa and Wick. Waiting in the Wings: Fargo Champion Danny Braunagel will redshirt this season. 174- Xavier Montalvo- Jr. Breakdown: As a super-talented 2x Fargo finalist, Xavier Montalvo was supposed to be the jewel of Illini 2016 recruiting class. It has not worked out that way. Montalvo has the talent, but he does not appear to have the make-up to get it done at this level. He essentially went AWOL on the team last year after just one dual and did not return to the mat. A lot of things can get you in this sport. Whether it be burnout or personal problems or weight cutting or whatever, Montalvo appears to be in no state to contribute. I would love to see the kid overcome some demons and return to form, but those storybook endings are pretty rare in a sport as brutally honest as wrestling. If Montalvo falls apart again, the Illini could look once more to David Riojas who took the bullet last year when Montalvo bailed. The Illini would certainly prefer to give Riojas a well deserved redshirt season. They also have redshirt plans for Fargo champion Zach Braunagel. 5th years senior and Minnesota transfer Colin Carr could be used in case of emergency. Best Wins: Jake Residori, Logan Gruszka Worst Losses: Montalvo’s only losses in the past 2 years are to All-Americans Jacobe Smith, Zac Brunson, and Daniel Lewis and to super-star Taylor Lujan. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Again, the first tier of the Big 10 is out of reach, but guys like Joe Grello, TeShan Campbell, Drew Hughes, and Devin Skatzka could be in play for a focused Montalvo. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Fargo champion Zach Braunagel will redshirt this season. 184- Emery Parker- Sr. Breakdown: Emery Parker was incredible all year with a 28-4 season. Somehow he was even more impressive at NCAAs. Parker dropped his opening round bout before roaring back to win 7 straight bouts on the backside to earn NCAA bronze. That kind of historic run takes talent no doubt, but even more so, it takes heart. And that is what I love most about Emery Parker. He is certainly an explosively athlete, but it’s his will that really separates him. His has sort of a freestyle friendly style favoring neutral and scoring not in long scrambles, but rather in quick clean explosions. Think Richard Perry. Busy hands and feet, then bang, he’s in and he finishes. Parker did not come to Illinois with a typical national champion’s prep pedigree and for that reason some still doubt that he is in the championship class. Career wins over guys like Myles Martin, Dominic Abounader, Ryan Presich, and Taylor Venz suggest that he might be. If the fates see to it that Bo Nickal goes 197 and Zahid Valencia remains at 174, then Parker is a legit championship contender. Best Wins: Myles Martin, Dominic Abounader, Taylor Venz, Ryan Preisch, Nick Gravina Worst Losses: 1st round loss to Chip Ness at NCAAs Most Anticipated Match-Ups: When you take third, you’ve got nothing but the top of the podium in mind. Myles Martin, Taylor Venz, and Shakur Rasheed are real threats to that plan. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: This is likely where Zach Braunagel will ultimately land. The cupboard is otherwise a little bare and a definite recruiting target zone for the coming years in Champaign. 197- Andre Lee- Sr. Breakdown: I’ve always viewed Andre Lee as an interesting prospect. He was a little under the radar for a kid coming out of the heralded Oak Park- River Forest program. He had definite athletic upside as a project recruit and the Illinois brass really believed they had found a diamond in the rough. He came out of the gate well and really supported that assumption. Well now Lee is a senior, and for whatever reason, it just hasn’t happened. He’s 39 up and 42 down as a three-year starter in an admittedly brutal conference. From a distance, Lee just doesn’t seem to have that burning desire to win. He wrestles low scoring close matches with just about everyone, but seems to take a 3-2 loss without really letting the fur fly. Case in point, Lee lost 13 matches last season. 11 of those losses were by one point, sudden victory, or tie breakers. On the flipside, he won only two one-point matches all season. Glass half full: Lee figures out a way to win his fair share of these tight bouts and he is an NCAA qualifier with upset potential. Glass half empty: Lee is the guy we’ve seen for the past three years and rides out his senior season to complete a non-descript .500 career of could-have-been. Best Wins: He once beat Preston Weigel. Lately, probably Bobby Steveson and Zach Chakonis Worst Losses: Anthony Messner, Regis Durbin, some guy named Alex Cruz. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: The glass half full in me believes Lee is right there with Hunter Ritter, Eric Schultz, Bobby Steveson, Jackson Striggow, David-Brian Whisler, and perhaps Matt Correnti. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: The Illini are need of depth in their upper weights. Lee would likely be spelled by veteran Brian Burns if needed. Heavyweight- Deuce Rachal- Sr. Breakdown: I really like this guy. He’s a pure go-for-broke homerun hitter and he’s built a little like Babe Ruth. He’s got surprising hips and will throw you if you hang around upstairs with him. Rachal was shoe-horned into the lineup after Brooks Black went down with a career ending injury. He has been better than expected for a guy with limited prep credentials. He is a martial arts kid with a background in karate and jiu-jitsu. Tough minded, fearless, and relatively dangerous. Rachal battles hard and is fun to watch. He’s not going to light the world on fire, but he will surprise some guys again this year. I hope he can sneak into the NCAAs. Best Wins: Conan Jennings, Gannon Gremmel Worst Losses: Mark Penyacsek, Razohnn Gross Most Anticipated Match-Ups: David Jensen, Conan Jennings, Trent Hillger, Chase Singletary should be fun. Waiting in the Wings: IHSA champion Matt Wroblewski. Illinois signed Fargo Champ Luke Luffman Team Breakdown: The Orange and Blue are firmly in a period of transition. The Mark Perry years ushered in a bevy of out-of-state blue chippers like Isaiah Martinez, Jesse Delgado, Zach Brunson, Nikko Reyes, Brooks Black, Jackson Morse, and Stephen Rodrigues. At least until they didn’t. And during the final few years of Perry, they didn’t. The Illini stopped landing the big time out-of-state recruits. In the meantime, the largely national recruiting platform had cost the Illini some of its foothold with home grown recruits. As the recruiting began to wane, Perry left for Hawkeye WC. Enter Mike Poeta and Bryan Medlin. In a clear effort to change the recruiting focus back to the homeland, Heffernan brought in two great coaches with deep roots in Illinois prep and club wrestling. From a recruiting standpoint, it seems to have worked. They are definitely landing a higher cut of Illinois talent and are once again landing kids who own stop signs from Fargo. This season the Illini bring in Zach and Danny Braunagel, both homegrown Fargo champions. Additionally, they have inked homegrown Fargo champions Luke Luffman and Fabian Lopez. Rising start Danny Pucino from Poeta’s club program has verballed to Illinois. Joey Gunther transferred home. Colin Carr transferred home. The roster, once half full with out-of-state wrestlers, now has just two kids from beyond the Land of Lincoln. Ultimately, only time will tell if this recruiting shift pays big dividends, but it is refreshing to see Illinois kids excited about the possibility of donning the Illini singlet. This season’s schedule is absolutely brutal. I would venture to say that Illinois has the single toughest dual meet schedule in the country. They dual Penn State, Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, Minnesota, Bono and the Badgers, Northwestern, and MSU. It is going to be a rough ride in duals, however this team will be prepared for March. Last year, Dylan Duncan, Mikey Carr, and Emery Parker surprised in March. This year, it may be Piotrowski or Gunther or Andre Lee. One thing is for sure, the Illini will be “sneaky-good” this year and the future is once again looking brighter.
  10. I really enjoy FRL. Nomad's geeky analytics provide a nice counterpoint to Willie's shoot-from-the-hip opinions. CP does a nice job moderating and moving the topics along. FRL still seems to be finding the ideal role for Kyle on the broadcast. He seems to be the "voice of reason" guy and may be a little under-utilized in the broadcast. I like their format. Friendly banter, news, opinion, argument, and light comedy keeps it fun and informative. Nice job guys!
  11. They will definitely be much improved. Gomez, Parker, Degen, Straw, Jennings, and Coleman should be very solid from 133-174. They'll get good production from Colbray and Gremmel up top. Carr hanging in redshirt. Things are definitely looking up in Ames. They may make a run for Big 12 runner-up this season.
  12. No real inside knowledge, but I have heard Oklahoma, UNC, and ODU mentioned as possible destinations. At OK he would be joining HS teammate Anthony Madrigal. OK would be looking tough with Moody, Madrigal, J-Rent, and Dom Demas at the front of their lineup for a few years. The case for UNC starts with Tony Ramos, but HS teammates Jaimie Hernandez and Matt Rundell also reside in Raleigh-Durham, and apparently J-Rent is buddies with Austin O'Connor. Renteria would slide in nicely at 141 between Zach Sherman and Austin O'Connor, but would likely have to compete with his buddy Hernandez for the job. ODU also boasts several former HS teammates in Alex Madrigal and Larry Early, but they just brought in Sa'Derian Perry and already have Madrigal at 141. Renteria would likely be a better fit at 133 for the Monarchs. I would love to see Renteria at Illinois, but I'd guess ILL is looking at Dylan Duncan and Mikey Carr bumping up to 141 and 149 respectively which would again leave Renteria looking at 133. Interesting prospect and a really fun kid to watch. Wherever he ends up, I wish him well.
  13. I don't expect Missouri to "thump 'em". Piotrowski can certainly beat McGhee Duncan can certainly beat Erneste Barone can certainly beat Grant Leeth Langenderfer will compete with Lavallee Martinez will dominate Parker can certainly beat Wisman and Brooks Black should beat Myers. I expect a close and competitive dual.
  14. Congrats to Mike Poeta. Great recovery for Illinois. This kid can really coach and should be a nice shot in the arm for recruiting.
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