Unranked to start the season, the Fighting Illini wrestling team has won three of its first five Big Ten dual meet and moved up to #20 in this week’s AP poll (#17 in InterMat’s dual meet rankings).
Media expectations were modest for an Illinois program coming off of a season that saw only four Illini wrestlers qualify for the NCAA championships, but two Illini won their weight class at the Midlands championships in December and seven are currently in InterMat’s top 30 for their class.
Lucas Byrd and Zac Braunagel are the two returning NCAA qualifiers from last year. Byrd is #10 in the nation at 133lb with a 19-3 record that includes a win over #13 Chris Cannon from Northwestern. Braunagel is up one weight class from last year and is the 10th-ranked 197lb wrestler. He’s also one of the Midlands champions from this season on the roster.
The other Midlands winner is 174lb wrestler Edmond Ruth, a transfer from Lehigh whose only loss in 23 matches this year came in November to Ohio State’s Ethan Smith at the Michigan State Open. The biggest surprise this year has been sophomore Danny Pucino’s emergence at 141lb. He’s gone from a preseason rank outside the top 50 to #8 while earning bonus points in over 46% of his matches.
The Illini opened up the conference slate with a 25-19 loss at #2 Iowa, which is the wrestling equivalent of the football team’s 3-point loss at Michigan. While several of Iowa’s starters couldn’t go, Illinois managed to take a true powerhouse and national title contender right down to the very last match. The Illini defeated #13 Wisconsin at home two days later before dominating Purdue the following weekend. Friday the Illini came away with a tiebreak loss at #15 Northwestern. They rebounded by thrashing Maryland Sunday and now face a stiff test Saturday at #11 Minnesota. It’s a big opportunity for the Illini as Byrd, Pucino and Ruth square off against top-20 opponents. Minnesota is a deep team, but that just means the underdog Illini will have more opportunities to prove themselves.
While senior Mike Carr has returned to start 2-0 at 157lb, returning qualifiers Justin Cardani (125lb) and Luke Luffman (HWT) have yet to make an appearance.