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sludgeworth

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  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Would a guy who won nothing this entire year and took 5th in his conference be seeded #1? Great system.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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!
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Congrats to Mike Poeta. Great recovery for Illinois. This kid can really coach and should be a nice shot in the arm for recruiting.
  12. If I-Mar is wrestling 70 kg (154) this weekend, why in the world is he going 165 for the folkstyle season? I'm genuinely worried about the size disadvantage he will face.
  13. 125- Travis Piotrowski- Fr.Breakdown: The Illini were left handcuffed at 125 last season by the late transfer of Jered Cortez to PSU. This move forced true freshman Francis Edelen into the shark infested waters of the Big 10 ahead of schedule. A 2-18 season ensued. The Illini will likely once again look to a true freshman but should get a more competitive campaign out of Piotrowski. Piotrowski picked up 3 Fargo medals, 3 IHSA state medals, and an IHSA state championship during his prep career. He has demonstrated some national pedigree, placing 3rd at Fargo in 2015 where his only loss was to Daton Fix. He has wrestled guys like Daton Fix, Yianni D, and Nick Suriano in HS and shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the breadth talent in the Big 10. Best Wins: Yet to compete in college Worst Losses: Yet to compete in college Most Anticipated Match-Ups: 125 thins out a bit in the Big 10 this season without Megaludis, Tomasello, or Youtsey. Still, the top of the conference is pretty daunting. Match-ups with the guys in the upper-middle of the conference such as Jose Rodriguez, Mitch Rogaliner, and Aaron Assad will be good measuring sticks for Piotrowski. As an Illinois guy, I’m also anxious to see matchups with fellow IHSA stars Elijah Oliver and Johnny Jiminez. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: The Illini have recently signed California superstar Justin Mejias. 133- Zane Richards- Sr. Breakdown: Zane Richards is one of the true engines of the Illini program. He trains and competes with maximum effort and intensity. He has relentlessly pursued the top of the NCAA podium since he arrived in Champaign and I believe it is now within his reach. Richards is coming off a great junior season which included an undefeated regular season and a 4th place finish at NCAAs. He followed this season up by winning the University World Team Trials, twice upsetting Tyler Graff in the finals. He owns wins over just about every contender at the weight including a couple wins over preseason #1 Cory Clark. All the hype will be thrown towards Clark and Tomasello, but nothing less than the top of the NCAA podium will be satisfying for Richards. Best Wins: Cory Clark x2, Eric Montoya x 3, AJ Schopp, Jimmy Gulibon x2, Johnny DiJulius x 2, George DiCamillo, Jordan Conaway x 2 Worst Losses: Only losses were at the hands of Cory Clark and Cody Brewer Most Anticipated Match-Up: Zane Richards and Cory Clark have battled 5 times in their careers with 4 of those matches decided by 1 point or OT. Any separation in this series could determine the NCAA champion at 133. Obviously a match-up with Nathan Tomasello would be an absolute dynamite slug fest. I am also really interested to see Richards square off with Jered Cortez who bailed on the Illini in favor of Penn State last season. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: 2x IHSA Champion and Cadet National Champion Dylan Duncan 141- Brock Ervin- So. Breakdown: Brock Ervin enters his third season in Champaign and Illini fans still don’t quite know what they have here. Thus far, Ervin’s career has been a little reminiscent of his brother’s. That is to say, flashes of great talent mitigated somewhat by inconsistency and injury. Ervin had some nice wins early last year but missed half the Big 10 season and all of the post-season with injury. Ervin no doubt has a high ceiling. He won 5 prep state titles and a prep national title. He is uber-slick on his feet and has that fluid chain-wrestling style. He also scrambles well and can be stingy on top. All the talent is there. Does he have the requisite grit, determination, and durability to realize his talent? The answer to that question will determine how the back half of Ervin’s Illini career unfolds. He may be the biggest wild card in the Illini room. He could finish the upcoming season anywhere from the podium in St. Louis to a non-qualifier. Best Wins: AJ Bannister, Steve Bleise Worst Losses: Topher Carton, Jordan Laster Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Ervin’s season was cut short so he has yet to match-up with many of the projected Big 10 starters. I am anxious to see him go with big names guys like Jimmy Gulibon, Tommy Thorn, and Ke-Shawn Hayes. A revenge match with Topher Carton would also be fun. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: 2x PA State Champion Mike Carr 149- Eric Barone- RFr. Breakdown: The Illini will be unproven at 149 this season. Incumbent starter Kyle Langenderfer is moving up to 157, leaving a spot for a youngster in the lineup. Eric Barone will likely get first crack at holding down the spot. Barone had a solid prep career which included multiple state medals and several solid national appearances. Barone began his prep career off the national radar, but clawed his way into the conversation when he upset blue-chip Gopher recruit Larry Early in the state finals his senior season. Barone will likewise begin his college career off the national radar. Can he once again climb the ladder and claw his way into the national picture? He comes off a limited 5-4 redshirt season, suggesting he still has some climbing to do. However, his makeup, commitment, and track record of progress suggest that he just might do that. Best Wins: Probably Nate Limmex Worst Losses: Matt Wempen Most Anticipated Match-Ups: I’m anxious to see how Barone hangs with the middle of the conference, where guys will likely be fighting for those final automatic Big Ten NCAA allocations. This makes match-ups with guys like Luke Blanton, Fredy Stroker, and Ryland Lubeck especially significant. Waiting in the Wings at Illinois: The Illini have several other lower profile but talented youngsters competing at this spot including Isaac Reinemann, Nick Gasbarro, and Michael Ordonez 157- Kyle Langenderfer- Jr. Breakdown: With I-Mar heading to 165, Langenderfer will bump up to 157 this season. This move probably couldn’t come soon enough for Langenderfer who began his collegiate career 3 years ago as a redshirt 157 pounder. That season he lost 1-0 to I-Mar in their freshman wrestle-off and had a strong redshirt campaign. As we know, in the ensuing years I-Mar blossomed into a back-to-back NCAA champion and Hodge contender. This forced Langenderfer to suck down to 149 for the next two years to break into the lineup. His first year at 149 was exceptionally promising. Langenderfer posted 21 wins, finished 3rd at Big 10s by defeating both Hunter Stieber and Alec Panteleo, and knocked off Michael DePalma at NCAAs. By contrast, his second year at 149 was nothing but a struggle. Holding weight was clearly taking a toll. Langenderfer never looked right and his results significantly tailed off. When wrestling with his usual spark, Langenderfer is active, explosive, and dangerous. He has an exciting style with a knack for putting guys on their back. Hopefully a more manageable weight cut will provide the spark Langenderfer needs to return to form and to return to St. Louis as an NCAA qualifier. Best Wins: Hunter Stieber, Alec Panteleo Worst Losses: Cody Burcher, Gabe Morse Most Anticipated Match-Ups: An IHSA State Finals rematch with Brian Murphy should be fun. I’m also anxious to see match-ups with qualifiers Jake Short, Alex Griffin, and Richie Lewis. Waiting in the Wings at Illinois: 3x IHSA State Champion Carver James 165- Isaiah Martinez- Jr. Breakdown: I-Mar heads into his junior season with 2 NCAA titles in hand. His greatness is unquestionable. The question now is how high up the ladder of all-time greats can I-Mar climb. His 1 career loss is fewer than contemporaries J’Den Cox, or Kyle Snyder. It is fewer than legendary 4x champions Logan Stieber or Kyle Dake. Should Martinez run the table over his last 2 seasons, his career would place him at the table with all-time greats like Sanderson and Gable. All that being said, there remains a lot of work to do and a number of really dangerous opponents lurking in the shark infested waters of 165. I-Mar is uber competitive and a new list of competitors should keep him plenty motivated. He is, of course, freakishly explosive, he has an endless gas tank, and his championship mentality doesn’t hurt either. This rare combination will make I-Mar the man to beat again in 2017, but a really impressive group of youngsters nipping at his heels and the potential to see Mark Hall at 165 next season should keep things really exciting for the next 2 years to come. Best Wins: Jason Nolf x 2, Ian Miller x2, James Green x 2, Dylan Ness, Brian Realbuto, Nick Brascetta x2 Worst Losses: Only career loss to Jason Nolf Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Wow, there are a lot of great potential match-ups at 165. I’m anxious to see all of the blue chip youngsters get their swing at I-Mar. Vincenzo Joseph, Alex Marinelli, Logan Massa, Anthony Valencia, and Chandler Rogers are all likely to enter the fray this year at 165. Match-ups with any of these guys will generate plenty of excitement and I-Mar has to want some revenge on Valencia. You also have established contenders like Isaac Jordan and Brian Realbuto who can legitimately threaten the crown. Finally, there is Daniel Lewis who may be the ultimate wildcard with his top game. Lewis can legitimately pin anyone at any time. Waiting in the Wings: Carver James will likely serve as the primary back-up at both 157 and 165. 174- Zac Brunson- Sr. Breakdown: Brunson enters the final season of what has been an outstanding Illini career still looking for that elusive NCAA medal. Prior to last season, I mentioned that Zane Richards was probably the greatest wrestler in Illini history yet to AA. The title probably now belongs to Brunson. Brunson will surpass 100 career wins this season. He is a 3x NCAA qualifier with 7 career wins at the big dance. Brunson spent almost all of last season ranked in the top 10. He was the Big 10 runner-up, placing ahead of NCAA champion Myles Martin. He owns wins over numerous All-Americans and has shown the ability to hang with anyone at the weight. Brunson lacks a bit of the explosive athleticism that most elite D1 wrestlers have, but he more than makes up for it with intensity, intelligence, and grit. I will be pulling hard for Brunson to wrap up his Illini career in style, somewhere on the podium in St. Louis. Best Wins: Dylan Alton, Brian Murphy, Tommy Gantt x 2, Alex Meyer, Nathan Jackson x 2, Bryce Hammond x 2, Johnny Eblen, Taylor Massa, Jaeden Bernstein Worst Losses: Nick Wanzek was his only loss outside of the top 10 Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Brunson is 2-1 career versus Nathan Jackson and 1-1 career versus Alex Meyer. The continuation of these two series will remain central to the Big Ten race at 174. Obviously, the presence of Bo Jordan at 174 will shake things up at the top as well. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: The Illini have Xavier Montalvo and Emery Parker battling for the starting spot at 184. Either one could make 174 if necessary. 184- Emery Parker- So. Breakdown: Jeff Koepke’s graduation and Nikko Reyes’ departure will open a spot for either Xavier Montalvo or Emery Parker. Montalvo came to Champaign with more fanfare being an Izzy Style Montini kid and boasting multiple state titles, a folkstyle national title, and Fargo runner-up finish. Yet it’s been Parker who has been turning heads in Champaign while Montalvo has struggled thus far to live up to his HS pedigree. Parker is an explosively athletic kid. He wrestles with strong pace and has some edge to his game. He will scrap with you and has some real offensive potential in neutral. Parker reached the finals last season at Reno, upsetting both Jordan Ellingwood and Austin Severn along the way. He followed the folkstyle season with some impressive offseason results, posting wins over bigger names guys like Hunter Ritter, Ryan Christensen, Bobby Steveson, and Michael Pixley. The Illini brass remains high on Montalvo and Montalvo could certainly earn this spot, but for the moment I’m placing my bet on Parker. He looks capable and maybe a touch hungrier. Best Wins: Jordan Ellingwood and Austin Severn Worst Losses: Nick Elmer Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Parker got two spot starts for the Illini last season, but faced two hammers in Brett Pfarr and Devonte Mahomes. I am anxious to see how he stacks up with the next tier of the conference. Folkstyle rematches with Bobby Steveson and Ryan Christensen or Hunter Ritter could loom large. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: 2x Illinois State Champion and Prep Folkstyle National Champion Xavier Montalvo. 197- Andre Lee- So. Breakdown: Andre Lee is an interesting story. The Illini signed Lee late in 2014 after blue chip recruit Michael Pixley went academic casualty on them. Lee was a 2x state place winner out of national powerhouse Oak Park-River Forest HS but didn’t garner much national attention on a HS team that boasted half a dozen state champions and numerous national champions. Still the Illini were excited about Lee’s athletic upside and viewed him as a project recruit who could pay off really nicely with a few more years of high level training and experience. As fate would have it, Nikko Reyes also went academic casualty on the Illini and Lee was rushed into the lineup a little ahead of schedule. Lee responded with a typically up and down freshman season. He started nicely and flashed some real potential during a 10-2 start before ultimately succumbing to the ridiculous grind of the Big Ten schedule. The second half of the season wasn’t pretty as Lee finished 1-7 in Big 10 duals and 0-2 at the Big 10 tournament. Lee does have ample ability to win. He just didn’t seem to hold up mentally through the course of an entire season. Flipping half of those Big 10 losses into the win column could see Andre Lee as a candidate to qualify for the national tournament. The graduation of 197 stalwarts such as McIntosh, Burak, Martin, and Huntley just may afford Lee this opportunity. Best Wins: Preston Weigel Worst Losses: Jacob Cooper and Jacob Berkowitz Most Anticipated Match-Ups: I am anxious to see if Lee does a better job of holding up through the mental a physical grind of the Big 10 season. Late season match-ups with Northwestern, Purdue, Penn State, and Indiana should tell the tale. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: The Illini are need of depth in their upper weights. Lee would likely be spelled by veteran Danny Hicks if needed. Heavyweight- Brooks Black- Jr. Breakdown: Brooks Black will once again represent the Illini at heavyweight. Black is already a 2x national qualifier who was a win away from All-American last season. To this point in his career, Black has shown the ability to consistently hang with just about everyone at the top of the division, but hasn’t yet found a way to consistently beat most of them. Black is a big heavyweight who holds position and defends well. His top game is better than most and he is athletic enough to get away on bottom. He just doesn’t light up the score board in neutral, which generally leaves him in tighter 1-2 takedown matches. A harder pace, a more offensive mindset, and a willingness to take more risk may be his ticket breaking into the top 10. Black showed some willingness to make these changes late last season and it paid off. At Big 10s and NCAAs he knocked off Stoll, Nevills, Jensen, and DeJournette on his way to a round of 12 finish. A portend to come? Or just a 2 week aberration? We are going to find out this season. Best Wins: Spencer Myers x 2, Nick Tavanello x 2, Sam Stoll, Collin Jensen, Nick Nevills, Denzel Dejournette Worst Losses: Suffered 3 losses outside the top 15 last season to Ray O’Donnell, Thomas Haines, and Tanner Harms. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: The heavyweight division has been absolutely stacked throughout Blacks’ career. The top of the conference remains super elite with Snyder and Medbery, but everyone else is in play for Black. Sam Stoll, Nick Nevills, Michael Kroells, and Collin Jensen are the likely match-ups that will determine if Black breaks into the All-American party or if he remains just outside looking in. Waiting in the Wings: Black will be backed up by strangely dangerous Deuce Rachal.
  14. I agree with most that you can't overreact to one day's performance. With variables like injuries, illness, weight cut, school stress etc, most guys have a bad day here and there. Still, this probably puts Marsteller on watch. Blees also lost to Zak Skates which eases the pressure somewhat. It'll be interesting to see if either guy can hold off JoJo. With OKSt in national title contention, I don't think Smith would hesitate to pull a redshirt if it improved the team's title hopes.
  15. 125- No One Breakdown: The Illini currently do not have a viable option at 125 for the upcoming season. When 2x NCAA Champion Jesse Delgado graduated last fall, most Illini faithful assumed the baton would be handed to blue chip recruit Jered Cortez. Unfortunately for the Illini, Cortez decided a few months ago to forego this season of eligibility and transfer to Penn State. In the meantime, viable veteran backup Dominic Oliveiri, believing he was stuck behind Cortez, transferred to Northern Illinois. To make matters worse, the curious timing of the Cortez transfer did not allow the Illini an opportunity to recruit a suitable replacement. This now leaves Illinois with only a single true freshman walk-on 125 pounder on their entire roster. They are not likely to throw this kid into the meat grinder of a Big 10 season, meaning they will probably forfeit 125 all season. It’s an embarrassing situation for an Illini program seeking national respectability. A few words on the Cortez transfer. I don’t now the specifics of his situation. I’ve heard suggestions that Cortez was unable or unwilling to cut to 125, leaving him stuck burning a season of eligibility behind Zane Richards at 133. However, since Cortez transferred within the Big 10, he now must sit this season anyway, rendering this explanation hard to follow. All I can say for sure is that this kid began wrestling as a youngster in Colorado then left for Ohio. He next wrestled in Ohio and then left for Illinois. He started his Illinois high school career at Marmion HS and then left for a different program. Now he has started his college career at Illinois and again left for another program. One can draw any inferences they wish from this track record of bouncing around. At the very least, when a college program recruits any kid with a consistent history of jumping around, they should not be surprised when it happens to them. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Frances Edelon, a former IHSA state finalist and Fargo National Finalist is currently the only 125er on the roster. The Illini also recently signed HS senior Travis Piotrowski who finished 3rd in freestyle at Fargo this summer. 133- Zane Richards- Jr. Breakdown: Zane Richards may be the best Illini wrestler in the school’s history to not yet own an All-American honor. The kid is tough as nails. He has amassed 53 wins in his first 2 seasons, all while battling through one of the deepest weight classes in the country. He owns numerous wins over All-Americans such as Cory Clark, AJ Schopp, Jimmy Gulibon, and Rossi Bruno. He appeared poised to climb the podium last season before unfortunate injuries derailed his post-season. Richards badly sprained his MCL at the Big 10s. He battled through the injury and took 5th, beating Gulibon in the medal rounds. He attended NCAAs limited by his knee, severely wrapped from ankle to hip. He won his first bout, but unfortunately sprained his opposite MCL even more severely than the first injury. He competed in his second round match with both legs completely wrapped from ankle to hip. Unable to do much more than try to force upper body ties, he looked like a shadow of himself. I believe the unfortunate timing of Richards’ knee injuries cost him a great shot All-American honors and an outside shot at a championship. He will now have to climb the mountain again this season. The weight class remains insanely deep however Dardanes, Schopp, and Gulibon are out of the way. Richards remains right in the championship mix with the other returning members of the top 10. This kid has the heart of a lion. Count him out at your won peril. Best Wins: AJ Schopp, Cory Clark, Jimmy Gulibon 3x, Johnni DiJulius, Rossi Bruno 2x Worst Losses: Eric Montoya, Danny Sabatello Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Richards and Cory Clark split two tough matches last season. I’m anxious to see this series continue. Richards will also have to figure something out against Ryan Taylor who handed him the only lopsided loss of his career. I’m anxious to see these two lock horns again. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: The Illini just signed HS Dylan Duncan who is seeking his 3rd Illinois State Championship this season. Duncan won a cadet Fargo title as a sophomore, beating Daton Fix in the finals. He was a junior Fargo All-American this past summer losing in the quarters to Kaden Gfeller 8-8 on criteria. 141- Brock Ervin- RFr. Breakdown: Incumbent starter Stephen Rodrigues has out grown the weight class and will not return to 141. This opens the door for very talented blue-chipper Brock Ervin. Ervin won 5 HS state titles in Kentucky and won a folkstyle national championship along the way. Ervin is fluid and athletic. He scores with greater ease than Rodrigues. Where Rodrigues is more of a hard-nosed grinder, Ervin is slick and smooth. If Rodrigues is a 4-wheel drive truck, Ervin is a sports car. The question for Ervin in his first season will not be about is talent. Does he have a championship mentality? Does he have the requisite toughness grind through a Big 10 season? We will soon find out. If he does, he will be another really good one for the Illini. Ervin finished a strong redshirt season 21-4 but really without a big signature win. Best Wins: Eric Spjut, Noah Forrider, Luke Zilverberg Worst Losses: His four losses were to tough opponents Seth Gross, Josh Dziewa, Luke Stewart, and Devin Carter Most Anticipated Match-Ups: There has been a large changing of the guard in the Big 10 at 141 with at least 8 team likely changing starters from last season. How Ervin matches up with these other new starters will largely determine his fate. Match-ups with fellow freshman stars like Micah jordan, Tommy Thorn, and AJ Bannister will be of particular interest. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: The Illini inked PA senior Mike Carr. Carr will be seeking his 2nd PA state championship this season. 149- Caleb Ervin- Sr. Breakdown: After two straight injury plagued seasons, the Illini expect the talented Caleb Ervin to finally be healthy and ready to go. A healthy Ervin gives Illinois two really solid options at 149, as incumbent starter Kyle Langenderfer returns for his sophomore season. I am expecting a really good battle for this spot. Ervin, when healthy, is a handful. He is an unbelievable scrambler and has an Askren-esque funk to his game, causing fits for his more conventional opponents. Although his career has been severely limited by injuries, he has shown an ability to beat top tier wrestlers. Ervin owns wins over guys like Brody Grothus, Josh Dziewa, and Dylan Ness. Kyle Langenderfer, on the other hand, really came on towards the end of his freshman campaign. He looked great at Big 10s pinning Hunter Stieber and taking out Alec Panteleo on his way to a tremendous 3rd place showing. Langenderfer is physical and athletic enough to Mack truck guys with double legs, but he’s also dynamic enough to hit some tosses and turns. He’s got a bit of a wide-open style and has a knack for putting guys on their back. This wrestle-off should be exciting. The word around the campfire gives Ervin the slightest of edges head-to-head in practice, but time will tell. Either one will represent the Illini well at the weight. Ervin’s Best Wins: Dylan Ness, Brody Grothus 2x, Josh Dziewa. Langenderfer’s Best Wins: Hunter Stieber, Alec Panteleo Ervin’s Worst Losses: Brian Hamann, Rylan Lubeck Langenderfer’s Worst Losses: Andrew Crone, Tyler Ponte Most Anticipated Match-Up: I49 is an intriguing weight in the Big 10. Tsirtsis, Sorenson, and Panteleo return from last season, while studs Retherford and Sueflohn return from redshirts. Throw in an x-factor like Hunter Stieber and you’ve got some very deep waters in the Big 10. I’m anxious to see where Ervin stands among the Sorenson, Panteleo, Sueflohn, Stieber group. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: The Illini signed IHSA State Champion Eric Barone who recently capped his HS career by upsetting star Gopher recruit Larry Early in the state finals. 157- Isaiah Martinez- So. Breakdown: I-Mar looks to climb the mountain again after an historic freshman season. This guy is really something special. We knew about his rare explosive athleticism, but we are learning that his mental make-up is just as special. He dominated a deep field last season and really beat virtually everybody of note including Dylan Ness, Brian Realbuto, Ian Miller, Cody Pack, Nick Brascetta, and James Green. His victories over Green look all the more impressive considering Green’s showing at the senior level this summer. I-Mar’s style is aggressive and exciting. He gets out of bed scoring points and really just keeps tacking on. There is so much to like here, but what excites me most is an interview I saw soon after NCAAs. 5 minutes after I-Mar completed an undefeated national championship season as a freshman, he was already thinking to himself “I can be better, I can do more”. Wow. Best Wins: Dylan Ness, Brian Realbuto, Ian Miller, Cody Pack, Nick Brascetta, and James Green x 2. Worst Losses: None Most Anticipated Match-Ups: I could watch Isaiah Martinez and Ian Miller wrestle all day. That would be a treat for every wrestling fan. I am also anxious to see some of the new 157 contenders get their swing at Martinez. Jason Nolf, Bryce Brill, and Tyler Berger come to mind. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Martinez will likely be backed up by Kyle Langenderfer as well. 165- Stephen Rodrigues- Sr. Breakdown: Stephen Rodrigues is a gritty and experienced senior. He is a grinder who relies heavily on out willing and out working his opponents. A program leader who sets the tone in the practice room and lives the championship lifestyle, it’s difficult to not root for this kid. Rodrigues has some big wins to his credit. However, Rodrigues has started really strong in each of the past three seasons, only to fade late. As most know, the proverbial late season fade can often be attributed to the mental and physical grind of a gigantic weight cut. This appears to be the case for Rodrigues who is now preparing to jump three weight classes, all the way to 165, to hold down this spot for the Illini. It is difficult to project with any certainty how well this can work. The 165 class is a bit thinner than most in the Big 10 giving him some chance to shine. Should the jump prove to be too much, the Illini have stud freshman Xavier Montalvo prepared to make the drop to 165. Montalvo is a 3 time Illinois State Champion, a folkstyle national champion, and a Fargo national runner-up. He competed at 182 in HS last season but is rumored to be dropping to 165 to challenge for this spot. The Illini would likely prefer to let Montalvo redshirt and have 5th year senior Stephen Rodrigues finish his career in the lineup. Best Wins: Anthony Ashnault, Josh Dziewa multiple times, Danny Sabatello, Jesse Thielke multiple times Worst Losses: George Fisher, Joey Ward Most Anticipated Match-Ups: 165 has thinned out a bit in the Big 10. Isaac Jordan returns to defend his Big 10 title, however national runner-up Taylor Walsh and All-Americans Jackson Morse and Pierce Harger each graduated. Perennial contender Nick Moore graduated and Bo Jordan appears to be moving up to 174. This changing of the guard leaves room on the podium for several new comers. How Rodrigues fairs with 2nd level guys like Burke Paddock, Nick Wanzek, Garrett Sutton, and Garrett Hammond will be critical. Waiting in the Wings at Illinois: The Illini have a pair of stud freshman, the aforementioned Xavier Montalvo and three time Illinois State Champion Carver James. 174- Zac Brunson- So. Breakdown: Brunson remains one of my favorite Illini. He is not a prototypical explosive, but he’s just so intense and competitive. An all-in 12-months-a-year wrestler, Brunson consistently makes off-season strides. He tore though the field at University Nationals this summer, teching his way to a national title. Last collegiate season, Brunson jumped 2 weight classes into perhaps the deepest field in the NCAAs and just missed All-American. He suffered 10 losses on the season, but 7 were to the murderers row of Kokesh, Storely, and Mike Evans. With the graduation of these three and Matt Brown, the conference and perhaps the NCAA are within reach for Brunson. He has the talent and the will to make it happen. Best Wins: Johnny Eblen, Bryce Hammond x 2, Taylor Massa Worst Losses: Alex Meyer, Mark Martin Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Alex Meyer caught Brunson in his only 3-match slump of the season. I am anxious for Brunson’s shot at redemption here. Young contenders Bo Jordan and Davonte Mahomes will also be a serious test for Brunson (and everybody else at 174). I can’t wait to see Brunson go tangle with these two. Ricky Robertson down at 174 will be another key test. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Xavier Montalvo could back-up this spot as well. If Montalvo drops, the Illini also have talented youngster Emery Parker 184- Jeff Koepke- Sr. Breakdown: Super-talented Sophomore Nikko Reyes is no longer on campus. An apparent classroom casualty, Reyes has transferred to Northern Colorado. This opens the door for 5th year senior Jeff Koepke to drop back to his natural weight and make a run at 184. Koepke gets a bit overlooked, but the kid is solid. He did tough duty up at 197 last season and pulled off some impressive wins on his way to qualifying for NCAAs. Koepke is physically strong and holds position well allowing him to hang tough with even the top tier guys. His return to 184 may allow him to be a bit more dynamic and offensive. Koepke does have career wins over Sammy Brooks and Alex Meyer at 184. On top of that bit of evidence, Mark Perry also identified Koepke as the Illini wrestler who made the biggest gains over this past summer. All of this suggests that another trip to NCAAs and perhaps a deeper run in New York seem a reasonable expectation. Best Wins: Sammy Brooks, Alex Meyer, Andrew Campolattano, Timmy McCall, Ruben Franklin , Elliott Riddick Worst Losses: Matt Williams, John Bolich Most Anticipated Match-Ups: 184 remains deep and dangerous. The top of the division may be a bit out of reach, but the guys in the 10-20 range will be key to Koepke’s success. This means match-ups with guys TJ Dudley, Kenny Courts, and Matt McCutcheon could loom large. It would also be really interesting should Koepke run into Nikko Reyes somewhere along the way. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Danny Hicks 197- Andre Lee- RFr. Breakdown: The loss of Nikko Reyes and subsequent drop to 184 for Koepke leaves the Illini without a proven performer at 197. They recruited 197 pounder Michael Pixley two summers ago, but wound up with Oak Park product Andre Lee, when Pixley dropped the ball academically. Lee doesn’t bring the national credentials of a guy like Michael Pixley, but the Illini like his attitude and athletic ceiling. They will now look to Lee to start and perform in a talented weight division a little sooner than expected. His ability to compete at this level is yet to be determined. He is explosively athletic. He won 9 out of 12 bouts and displayed a propensity for pinning guys as a redshirt last season but didn’t really register a signature win. Lacking experience, I suspect Lee may need to make some adjustments early in the season, but will be a tough out by the end of the year. Best Wins: No notable wins as a redshirt. Worst Losses: Only 2 losses were to NCAA qualifiers Jared Bartel and Jake Tindle. Most Anticipated Match-Ups: I am anxious to see Lee match-up with Ryan Christensen, Dylan Devine, and Drake Stein to see if he can climb toward the middle of the Big 10 and establish himself as a legitimate 197 pound option. Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Illinois state champion Colton Emmerich Heavyweight- Brooks Black- So. Breakdown: Brooks Black returns as the starting big man for Illinois. Black missed his redshirt season due to injury, but jumped immediately into the starting lineup anyway. He produced a solid, if not somewhat up and down, freshman season. When the dust settled, Black won 18 bouts, qualified for NCAAs, registered 4 top 20 wins, and beat All-American Spencer Myers twice. He wrestled 13 matches against top 20 ranked opponents, pulled off 4 wins, and was competitive in most. Black is a full sized heavyweight who moves well and can produce offense. He has competed at the highest levels of competition and performed well at every stop along the way. He should continue to make strides and have his sights set on a deeper March run. Best Wins: Spencer Myers x 2, Nick Tavanello x 2 Worst Losses: Jake McKiernan, Garrett Goldman Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Heavyweight thins out somewhat in the Big 10 this season with the graduation of Mike McMullan, Bobby Telford, and Spencer Myers, as well as, an Olympic redshirt for Connor Medbery. That being said, the division is still deep and talented. Coon probably stands alone at the top, but Black should have every other heavyweight in the conference in his cross-hairs. Match-ups with Michael Kroells, Nick Nevills, Sam Stoll, Nick Tavanello, and Billy Smith will likely determine if Black gets another NCAA invitation or if he gets his first NCAA seed. Waiting in the Wings: Former starter Chris Lopez will provide an experienced and capable back-up to Brooks Black.
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