While it’s taken me a while to get over the final match of Isaiah Martinez’ career at Illinois, the loss shouldn’t overshadow yet another solid year for Illinois Fighting Illini wrestling in 2017-18.
The Championships in Context
College wrestling is a sport that, on the national team level, does not have much in the way of parity, and it’s always been like that. After all, this sport — perhaps more than any other —gives numerous opportunities for the very best to separate themselves from the rest. In any given year, there are only about five teams that can really compete for the national title. Historically speaking, these have been the likes of Oklahoma State, Minnesota and Iowa, but over the last eight years it’s been Penn State alone, with the occasional challenge from Ohio State.
Penn State is coached by Cael Sanderson, who is without a doubt the greatest wrestler in collegiate history. One of only four men to win four national titles, Sanderson was the last freshman to record an undefeated national title-winning season until Isaiah Martinez did so for Illinois a few years ago. This was a rare year they did not qualify wrestlers for the national championships at all 10 weight classes, but they made up for it by having four win national titles.
The reason I bring this up is that there are essentially four tiers in collegiate wrestling: Penn State stands alone in the top tier, with Ohio State fluctuating between the top two. The second tier consists of programs that could, in theory, challenge Penn State if many upsets occurred. Recently, tier two has contained Ohio State, Iowa, Oklahoma State, Minnesota, Cornell, Missouri and NC State. Michigan entered tier two this year and may be poised to maintain its ranking.
Tier three consists of all the other programs that matter; while they won’t challenge for the title, they are routinely ranked in the top 25, qualify at least 5 wrestlers for the championship and produce multiple All-Americans. Tier four consists of everybody else, which is a vast majority of Division 1 to be honest.
In Jim Heffernan’s eight years as the head coach of Illinois wrestling, the program has maintained a spot near the front of the third tier. This is the fourth straight year that Illinois has produced multiple All-Americans, with Martinez and Emery Parker winning 2nd and 3rd in their weight classes. With 37.5 points, Illinois tied Oklahoma State for 13th and picked up their seventh consecutive top-15 finish. Though Oklahoma State had perhaps a down year, they are still the 34-time national champion program that routinely finishes in the top 5 and produces national champions.
Though the man who discovered Illinois’ last two national champions has left for Iowa, the Fighting Illini are still pulling in some talent.
125 lb: Sophomore Travis Piotrowski qualified for the NCAA championships for the second year in a row, but may face competition from incoming freshman Justin Mejia. Only the second four-time state champion in the history of California, Mejia was the subject of much recruiting drama involving Iowa and admissions and as a result will attend Illinois a full school year after graduating college.
133 lb: Redshirt freshman Dylan Duncan placed third in the Big Ten and qualified for the championships, finishing 20-9. Barring a jump in weight from Mejia, Duncan will probably hold down the 133 spot.
141 lb: Mike Carr, the third component of the stellar 2016 recruiting class, finished 20-6 in his redshirt freshman year, qualifying for the NCAA championships and placing second in the Big Ten tournament. With multiple upsets over top-10 wrestlers such as Nick Lee and Chad Red, Carr showed the potential to challenge for All-American status next year.
149 lb: This spot will probably be held by redshirt sophomore Eric Barone, whose early exit from the Big Ten tournament cost him a second straight year of qualifying for the NCAA championships. He enters 2018 with a 19-26 career record, though redshirt freshman Dylan Thurston could challenge him for the position.
157 lb: Two-time NCAA qualifier Kyle Langenderfer will graduate this semester, vacating the 157lb spot. I can’t at this point project who will fill it, though redshirt sophomore Carver James is the most likely fit if incoming freshman Danny Braunagel wrestles at 165 lb.
165 lb: Illinois loses the greatest wrestler in its program history with the graduation of Isaiah Martinez, and it’s not clear who will replace him in this weight class. Redshirt freshman Johnny Mologousis seems to me to be the favorite, having gone 9-6 in his redshirt year.
174 lb: This one is also unclear, as David Riojas had a disastrous season as the starter, going 2-15. Redshirt sophomore Xavier Montalvo was a highly-touted recruit, being ranked #19 pound-for-pound in the country at one point, but has gone 8-4 officially in limited action. Incoming freshman Zac Braunagel may challenge for this spot.
184 lb: Redshirt junior Emery Parker is coming off his best season, a 28-4 campaign that saw him place 3rd nationally. The most successful Illini wrestler next year is likely to be either Parker or Carr.
197 lb: Redshirt junior Andre Lee has been the starter here for a few years, recording double-digit wins each year but not qualifying for the NCAA championships. He is most likely to wrestle as the starter his senior year.
285 lb: Redshirt junior Duece Rachal sat behind Brooks Black for a couple years and became the starter this past year, posting a 10-12 record. He is likely to be next year’s heavyweight starter as well.