Isaiah Martinez is the new California kid shining for the Illinois wrestling program.
The redshirt freshman, a three-time California state champion, enters the NCAA tournament undefeated (30-0) after cruising to victory over No. 2 and 2014 national runner-up Dylan Ness (Minnesota) in the Big Ten Championships final.
The Big Ten Freshman of the Year has also been named one of four finalists for the Dan Hodge Trophy, the sport's equivalent to the Heisman Trophy. Martinez holds 20 bonus point wins, including a NCAA Division I leading 10 technical falls this season. If Martinez wins the national title, he will be the third Illini wrestler behind Matt Lackey (2003) and Eric Siebert (1998) to finish an undefeated season.
Martinez has also beat past All-Americans Anthony Perrotti (Rutgers), James Green (Nebraska) and Ian Miller (Kent State). His 1-0 victory over then-No. 4 and 2014 third-placer Green is the only match this season with a margin of victory less than two points. Martinez also won Midlands in December where he recorded one technical fall and two major decisions.
Ness is a three-time All-American, including two runner-up finishes. He earned a pair of victories over Green, including a last-second victory in the Big Ten semifinals.
Green, who placed seventh his first two years before grabbing third last season, won the Southern Scuffle this season. Miller, who finished fourth at NCAAs in 2014, is coming off his third MAC championship.
Road to the Final
Martinez draws Army's Russell Parsons (26-10) in the opening round then the winner of Ohio's Spartak Chino (19-11) and No. 16 seed Citadel's Aaron Walker. In the quarterfinals, he would likely see No. 9 seed Joseph LaVallee (22-11) of Missouri, who he beat in the NWCA National Duals, or No. 8 seed John Boyle (36-8) of American.
The semifinal bout Friday night, looks to be Green or No. 5 seed South Dakota State's Cody Pack (34-4), who Martinez beat 6-3 for the Midlands title.
Hodge, team race
Within an hour of the brackets being announced Martinez joined the Tay and J Show on ESPN 93.5 to talk about his season. On the show, Martinez talked about knowing he can win a national title and now he wants to add the Hodge Trophy too. A strong team finish is also important for Martinez as he showed off his team pride during his Big Tens championship celebration - giving a nod to Dee Brown.
Unless the rest of the Illini lineup pulls of some bonus point wins and the big teams (Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio State) in the team race have major wrestlers upset; the Illini will be slated for anywhere from fifth to 10th place. Martinez can help solidified a strong team performance with bonus point wins Thursday in his first two matches and even in his quarterfinal bout.
Bonus point wins even if they are just a major decision will be great for the team race, but for Martinez to make a strong case for the Hodge Trophy he needs technical falls or pins. He is 20 of 30 with bonus point wins, while Oklahoma State's Alex Dieringer is 20 of 23 and Ohio State's Logan Stieber is 20 of 24 with bonus point victories.
He has five matches to go this season and he'll need bonus points in each one to walk away the first Illini to win the Hodge Trophy.
[MORE: 2015 NCAA Division I Brackets]
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