Illinois returns eight of their 10 starters from a season ago that finished sixth in the Big Ten and 13th at the NCAA Championships in Oklahoma City. The Orange and Blue are ranked No. 11 in Dual Meet Rankings and No. 14 in Tournament Rankings by InterMat's preseason poll. They also boast a No. 11 ranking by WIN Magazine in its annual preseason Tournament Power Index (TPI), which predicts how teams will finish at the 2015 NCAA National Championships in St. Louis. Eight Illini have also earned top-20 individual weight class rankings.
The Big Ten once again looks tougher than Southeastern Conference football with four teams in the top five of each poll. Minnesota is ranked No. 1 followed by Ohio State and Iowa. The Ivy League's Cornell comes in at No. 4, while Penn State rounds out the top five. Other Big Ten ranked opponents include Northwestern (No. 8), Nebraska (No. 11), Michigan (No. 13), Wisconsin (No. 15) and Rutgers (No. 23) in tournament rankings.
The Illini will open their season Sunday as they host the Illini Quad at Huff Hall. They will start with SIU Edwardsville at 2 p.m. followed by Rider at 3:30 p.m. and Northern Illinois at 5 p.m.
Returning starters for the Illini are Jesse Delgado (125), Zane Richards (133), Steven Rodrigues (141), Caleb Ervin (149), Jackson Morse (165), Zac Brunson (174), Nikko Reyes (184) and Christopher Lopez (HWT). All the returning starters except Lopez have been a national qualifier at least once.
The Illini grapplers are led by arguably the best athlete in the school's history, two-time defending NCAA and Big Ten Champion Jesse Delgado at 125 pounds. Delgado will return to the 125 pound class as he eyes the first ever three-peat in school history. The senior enters his final season ranked No. 1 by both InterMat and WIN Magazine. Freshman Jered Cortez, a four-time IHSA State Champion, will be mentored by Delgado. The Glenbard North product was also a Cadet Freestyle and Junior Freestyle National Champion, and four-time Fargo All-American.
Zane Richards will hold down the 133 pound starting spot. Richards, a redshirt sophomore, went 27-9 and qualified for nationals and placed fifth at the Big Ten Championships. He went 2-2 at nationals and recorded the Illini's only win at Penn State, a decision over then-No. 19 Jimmy Guilbon, and also earned tournament wins at the William Penn Open and Loras Open. Dominic Olivieri, a redshirt junior from Marist High School, will also weight in at 133. Olivieri filled in for injured starter Steven Rodrigues at 141 in duals against Ohio State and Michigan. He also won the Loras Open.
Steven Rodrigues returns at 141 after an injury made him miss nearly a month on the mat. Rodrigues complied a 12-11 record and was an NCAA qualifier. He placed sixth at Big Ten Championships and recorded three upsets en route to a second place finish at Midlands Championships. During the 2012-13 season, he went 30-14 after B.J. Futrell went down with an injury.
Caleb Ervin moves back into the starting spot at 149 after he also suffered an injury last season that made him miss nearly two months. Ervin went 8-8 overall, placed eighth at Big Ten Championships and won the William Penn Open. During the 2012-13 season, he received an at-large to NCAAs and defeated No. 7 Dylan Ness of Minnesota during the regular season by a 11-3 decision. John Fahy also was in the rotation last year after Rodrgues went down and could see some time at this weight class.
Isaiah Martinez complied a 7-0 record in open tournaments, including a first place finish at the William Penn Open and fourth at Midlands. He finished the season with a 13-2 record. Martinez enters the season ranked No. 9 by WIN Magazine.
Jackson Morse recorded a career-high 25 wins last season and qualified for NCAAs after placing fifth at Big Ten Championships.
Zac Brunson put on the pounds during the offseason and makes the jump from 157 pounds to 174 for the 2014-15 season. Brunson went 24-14 with a seventh place performance at Big Ten and qualified for NCAAs. He won the Loras Open and took seventh at Midlands.
Nikko Reyes will make his second season as a starter at 184. Reyes went 22-14, won the Loras Open, finished sixth in the Big Ten and qualified for NCAAs. He went 2-2 at nationals, including an upset win over No. 9 Ryan Loder of Northern Iowa. He was also another Loras Open winner.
Jeff Koepke went 8-13 last season and with a second place finish at Loras. He is expected to take the starting spot at 197 this season, but will be see competition from freshman teammates Andre Lee and Colton Emmerich. Lee was a two-time freestyle and greco state champion, and was a member of Oak Park River Forest two state championship teams the last two years. Emmerich, Deerfield High School product, won the 182 pound state title and posted a 47-1 record last season.
Christopher Lopez went 13-18 with a Loras Open win and eighth place finish at Midlands. He will take the starting gig with Brooks Black, a redshirt freshman, sure to see some time as well. Black, a Blair Academy product (New Jersey) placed fifth in the 120kg/264.5 lb weight class at the FILA Junior National Championships and is ranked No. 19 by WIN Magazine.