CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – In 2007-08, the Fighting Illini put together a season that included a 13-4 dual-meet record, a national runner-up and Big Ten champion, two All-Americans and seven NCAA qualifiers, but Coach Mark Johnson’s group finished the campaign with a hunger for greatness in 2008-09. Illinois kicks off the season with its intrasquad wrestle-offs on Saturday, Nov. 8, at 11:30 a.m., at Huff Hall.
That hunger comes from the knowledge that six of those seven national qualifiers – plus 2006 NCAA qualifier Troy Tirapelle – return this season, with returning All-Americans Mike Poeta and Jimmy Kennedy leading the charge.
This Illini team features impressive depth as well as strength at the top, with 30-match winner John Wise looking to make noise on the national heavyweight scene and Patrick Bond poised for a strong season at 197 after going 27-9 last season. In addition, two-time national qualifiers Roger Smith-Bergsrud (165) and John Dergo (174) return, as do Ryan Prater (141) and Grant Paswall (149), who showed great toughness while starting as true-freshman a season ago.
In the only weight class where Illinois does not return a starter, sophomores John Deneen and Dalton Bullard will compete with true-freshmen B.J. Futrell and Daryl Thomas for the spot in the lineup. Deneen went 2-4 last season, going 1-2 at both the Missouri Open and Midlands, while Bullard was 4-4 with a fourth-place finish at the Loras Open. Futrell is one of the most highly touted rookies in the nation as a six-time USA Wrestling All-American in freestyle and Greco-Roman and a second-place finisher at the 2008 National High School Senior Nationals. Thomas also comes in with some fanfare as the 2008 Asics junior folkstyle national champion at 125 pounds.
Junior All-American Jimmy Kennedy returns for another run at Big Ten and national titles at 133 pounds, where he took second at Big Ten Championships and fourth at NCAAs a year ago. Kennedy won 14 consecutive matches from Jan. 20-March 9 last season, including an undefeated Big Ten dual season. He compiled a 32-7 record, one of three Fighting Illini to top the 30-win mark, went 3-0 against Minnesota’s Mack Reiter and 1-1 against Iowa NCAA runner-up Joe Slaton. Former state champion redshirt-freshman Zeke Rowan and true-freshman Ryan LePretre also will wrestle at 133.
Troy Tirapelle is in pursuit of his first All-America honor after battling injuries each of the past two seasons, but he will have to battle sophomore Ryan Prater for the starting spot after Prater filled in admirably for an injured Tirapelle in 2007-08. An ankle injury severely limited him late in the 2006-07 campaign and he missed most of last year after injuring his shoulder at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational on Nov. 30. He looks to close the book on the Fighting Illini Tirapelle brothers with a triumphant chapter. Prater took over the starting spot at 141 last season after Tirapelle was injured, went 20-11 and was ranked as high as No. 10 in the NWCA/Intermat poll. Prater upset three ranked opponents, including Wisconsin’s seventh-ranked Kyle Ruschell. Redshirt-freshman Vince Vercelli also will compete at 141.
Grant Paswall, who won the job as a true-freshman last year, returns for his sophomore campaign. Part of a loaded weight class in the Big Ten conference that produced five All-Americans last season, Paswall went 19-11 in 2007-08 and tied for the team lead with four pins. He was 4-2 at the Las Vegas Invitational, coming up one win short of placing, and went 2-1 at Midlands before having to default out of the tournament with an injury. Sophomore Joey Kotowski and newcomers Drake Rossi, Reese Taylor and Eric Terrazas also will wrestle at 149.
Two-time All-American and 2008 NCAA runner-up Mike Poeta enters his senior campaign with one thing on his mind: a national championship. After falling one point short in a 5-4 title-match loss last season, the 2008 Big Ten champion will be hungry in 2008-09. Poeta started last season 22-0 and was ranked in the top three all season in the NWCA/Intermat poll. He scored bonus points in a team-high 17 matches and his 35 wins are the fifth-highest total in school history. Poeta went 3-0 against both Wisconsin’s Craig Henning and Penn State’s Dan Vallimont, and won both the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational and Midlands, his second Midlands title. Junior Clint Arlis, redshirt-freshmen Jake Beechy and Jake Kimberlin, and freshman Kyle Dooley also will be at 157.
Two-time NCAA qualifier Roger Smith-Bergsrud heads into his final season looking to improve on consecutive sixth-place finishes at Big Ten Championships. Smith-Bergsrud battled injuries that hampered his quickness throughout 2007-08, but now fully healthy, he looks to be a leader on this year’s Illini squad. Smith-Bergsrud had eight losses that were decided by a total of 15 points on his way to a 20-12 record last season. His 4-3 win over Indiana’s No. 12 Matt Coughlin after two overtime periods was his first win over a ranked opponent in nearly a year, and he took Oklahoma State’s No. 5 Jake Dieffenbach to the limit before dropping a 3-2 decision at Virginia Duals. Newcomers Conrad Polz, Brian Reynolds and Dan Stelter also will wrestle at 165.
Two-time national qualifier John Dergo is back for his third season in the Orange and Blue, but this time his weight class will remain the same. Dergo moved down to 174 last year after wrestling at 184 as a true-freshman and put together a 28-15 record with a fifth-place finish at Big Ten Championships. He ranked 12th in the country with 11 major decisions and finished sixth at both the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational and Midlands in 2007-08. He will be backed up by sophomores Joe Barczak and Clinton Polz, and freshman Matt McCarter.
Sophomore Ben Friedl returns at 184 after earning the starting spot in the Big Ten season in 2007-08. Friedl showed his tenacity wrestling up a weight class, finishing 14-13 on the year and notching three Big Ten victories. He placed fourth at the Missouri Open and defeated Purdue NCAA qualifier A.J. Kissel during the dual. Freshman Jordan Blanton will challenge Friedl for the starting job after winning three Illinois state titles and compiling a 152-1 record in high school. Newcomer Matt McCarter also will wrestle at 184.
Two-time national qualifier Patrick Bond looks to challenge for the Big Ten title and earn his first All-America honor as a junior. A fourth-place finisher at Big Ten Championships in 2008, Bond upset Wisconsin’s fourth-ranked Dallas Herbst in the dual and collected a career-high 27 wins. Bond won 14 of 15 matches from Dec. 1-Feb. 15 and placed fifth at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. Junior Jake Norman and redshirt-freshman Martin Smith will back up Bond.
Two-time national qualifier John Wise was named the team’s Most Improved Wrestler in 2007-08 and it showed, as he finished fifth at Big Ten Championships and carded a 31-16 record. He defeated four higher-ranked opponents and placed fourth at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. Known for his quickness and athleticism, Wise will aim for his first All-America honor as a senior. Redshirt-freshman Harold White and true-freshman Pat Walker also will wrestle at heavyweight.