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2015 NCAA Wrestling Nationals: Jesse Delgado aiming for 3-peat

2-time defending champion is unseeded and faces an uphill climb to the podium.

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Jesse Delgado has been the face of the Illinois wrestling program this decade.

He won back-to-back national titles for the first time in 56 years for the program last March and he's won two Big Ten titles.

But a shoulder injury suffered during the Illini's home opener Nov. 9 sidelined him for more than two months. During that time redshirt freshman Isaiah Martinez became the talk of the program with an undefeated season as Delgado spent more time in the training room than the Illini practice room.

Since his return to the starting lineup Jan. 30 in a home dual against Maryland, Delgado is 7-3 with one forefit in the third-place match at Big Ten Championships. His average margin of victory is less than four points - true to Delgado's form.

Delgado's path to a national title the past two seasons was quiet easier than this year. He earned All-American honors by placing seventh his freshman season and went on to beat Penn State's Nico Megaludis 7-4 to claim his first title the next year.

He met Megaludis again last season in the semifinals before taking down Cornell's Nahshon Garrett in a 3-2 decision for his second national championship.

But this year, Delgado isn't coming off winning a Big Ten Championship. He hasn't wrestled a full season and he's not 100 percent.

The cards are stacked against him, but luckily he can turn to the man who recruited him to Illinois for advice.

Illinois assistant head coach Mark Perry, who won back-to-back national championships at Iowa in 2007 and 2008, was a co-head coach at Cal Poly where Delgado transferred from. Perry underwent arthroscopic knee surgery just two months before defending his title at nationals in 2008.

Delgado enters the NCAA tournament this weekend in St. Louis unseeded and will have his toughest road to five straight wins in three days to become the first Illini to three-peat.

Bracket of Death

Delgado draws No. 8 seed Tyler Cox (22-7) of Wyoming in the opening round. He then feeds into No. 9 Dylan Peters (23-5) of Northern Iowa and No. 1 undefeated Alan Waters of Missouri. All four wrestlers have earned All-American honors in their careers. The next quarterfinals bracket does not have any All-Americans and the other two each have just one.

Favorites

Waters, who redshirted last year, is the man to beat. He defeated Delgado at the NWCA National Duals in February in a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2. He's also beat 2014 NCAA runner-up Garrett for the Southern Scuffle championship in January. In 2012, he was also the No. 1 seed but settled for fourth place.

Garrett's loss to Waters was just one of three this season. He also captured his third straight EIWA championship this season.

Contenders

Virginia Tech's Joey Dance, who finished fourth last season enters the tournament with both a Midlands championship over Iowa's Thomas Gilman and an ACC title.

Ohio State's redshirt freshman Nathan Tomasello also has an impressive resume. Tomassello is on a 13-match win streak, including wins over Delgado and Gilman at Big Tens. Gilman defeated Garrett in the National Duals and beat Delgado at last season's Midlands.

[MORE: 2015 NCAA Division I Brackets]

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