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Fighting Illini 2020 Preview

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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.

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Look forward to this every year, and you never disappoint.  Thank you, and your review probably has me thinking I was likely a little too down on the Illini going into this year.  Not a ton of holes, though not a ton of world beaters.  Should be a better dual team than tourney...

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