By Betsy Veysman
The finals of the National Duals Regional held in Ithaca, NY came down to the heavyweight match. But it was a 197 pounder that made the difference for Illinois, leading them to the Final Four next Sunday.
The Illini never trailed in the matchup with host Cornell. After 184 pounds, the visitors led 17-10 and with #1 Cam Simaz ready to go for the Big Red, the Illinois coaches decided to put backup Marty Smith on the mat against Simaz and bump regular 197 starter Mario Gonzalez up a weight to face Cornell’s Maciej Jochym.
Simaz delivered a pin for home squad to knot the score at 16, (Illinois lost a team point for unsportsmanlike conduct), setting up the winner-takes-all bout at 285.
Gonzalez made the strategy work, coming through for his team with an 8-2 decision to end the dual 19-16 in favor of the Big 10 school.
“We had been talking about that move for a while,” said Illinois head coach Jim Heffernan. “We thought if we needed a win at heavyweight, we would give it a shot. I almost chickened out when we were at 174, but we decided as a staff to stay with it. I’m happy we did.”
“I wasn’t expecting them to bump him up, but it didn’t totally surprise me,” Cornell head coach Rob Koll said. “I would have done the same thing. Maciej wrestled hard but Gonzalez was a tough style matchup, a little unorthodox.”
The Illini got off to a strong start in the dual, marching out to an 8-0 advantage on the strength of an 8-3 decision by Jesse Delgado over Frank Perrelli at 125 and an 18-3 technical fall by BJ Futrell over Nick Arujau.
“It was a gigantic win by Jesse to start the dual off,” Heffernan said. “It was a toss up match so it was big for us. BJ is one of our captains and a leader. He hustled and put a lot of points on the board. He really sparked us.”
Cornell’s Mike Nevinger then stopped the momentum temporarily with a 9-0 major decision over Daryl Thomas at 141 to cut the lead to 8-4.
“Mike just keeps improving,” Cornell head coach Rob Koll added. “I’ve been a fan of his since Day 1 and I think he’s starting to make believers out of a lot of people now.”
The Illini responded by winning three of the next five bouts to take a 17-10 lead. Eric Terrazas (149), Conrad Polz (165) and Jordan Blanton (174) all won by decision while Kyle Dake (157) and Steve Bosak (184) each earned three points for their team, setting up the exciting conclusion.
To reach the finals, Cornell topped Purdue, 29-6 while Illinois defeated Oklahoma 21-18, giving the Illini a pair of victories over top 12 teams on the day.
“We had two really big wins today,” Heffernan said. “We didn’t think we matched up great with either team, so I’m extremely happy with the way our guys competed. We’re excited to move on to the next round next weekend.”
The Big Red wrestlers, the defending National Duals champions, were disappointed with the loss but took away some positives from the performance.
“We wanted to win, but we’re not completely devastated,” Koll said. “Lots of the kids wrestled really well. You look at someone like Billy George. He lost at 174 [7-6 to Blanton] but he wrestled hard and scored last against a very good opponent. I’m proud of the way Billy competed. Marshall [Peppelman] wrestled a full seven minutes and didn’t back down. We can take some good things away from today.”
“Illinois wrestled smart. They’re a good team and they kept matches close when they needed to,” he said. “We have three weeks to get better from now until EIWAs and then NCAAs. We’ll train hard and build from the positives we saw today. Now we have some extra motivation.”
For the first time, the National Duals event was held in a regional format rather than a two-day tournament in one location. Koll felt that the new structure was worth getting behind.
“We believe we need to be supportive of this event. It’s necessary to put more emphasis on dual meets to successfully market the sport,” he said. “We realize that there will be some kinks that need to be figured out in the first year, but we need all hands on deck to make this a huge event to help our sport. We like how it started.”
“It was a great event,” Bosak agreed. “It was exciting and we were very happy to have it at home. The crowd was great. The fans gave us a lot of energy. I wish we could have given them a win.”