In a match that went down to the wire, and despite strong performances throughout the lineup, No. 3 Cornell lost its first dual match of the season yesterday afternoon to No. 7 Illinois in the final of the NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals regional tournament, which took place at Newman Arena. The Illini are advancing to the National Duals final which will be held in Stillwater, Okla., along with No. 4 Minnesota, No. 5 Iowa, and a fourth team which is to be determined.
“I wasn’t disappointed at all,” said Head Coach Rob Koll about his team’s effort on Sunday. “I thought we had some great performances. Some of these guys that we lost to are some of the best kids in the country. … I was disappointed that we couldn’t have done better, but sometimes you just don’t have the cast of characters to win the match.”
Both teams — as the top-seeded teams in the regional — had received byes during the preliminary morning round of wrestling and then won their initial dual meet that afternoon. The Red defeated Purdue, 29-6, and the Illini grinded out a 21-18 win over Oklahoma.
The Illini sent out two of the best wrestlers in the country at 125 pounds and 133 pounds — No. 7 Jesse Delgado and No. 5 B.J. Futrell, respectively — for the first two bouts of the meet. The Red countered with senior Frank Perrelli, No. 5 in the country at 125 pounds, and sophomore Nick Arujau at 133 pounds. Perrelli lost by decision, 8-3, and Arujau was overmatched losing by technical fall, 18-3. Falling behind behind 8-0 early, the Red had to play catch-up until the last matchup of the meet.
“I was pretty sure it was going to come down to heavyweight … I knew we were in big trouble after we lost 125 [pounds,]” he said, noting that winning at 125 was critical if the team were to ultimately be successful.
At 141 pounds, No. 16 sophomore Mike Nevinger defeated Daryl Thomas by major decision, 8-0, to cut the Illini’s lead in half to 8-4, but sophomore Chris Villaonga lost a tough match, 3-1, at 149 pounds which added another three points to the Illini’s lead.
At 157 pounds, junior Kyle Dake — the No. 1 wrestler in the country in his weight division — pulled out a win despite battling pain from an arm injury. Because of the injury, sophomore Craig Eifert wrestled at 157 in the team’s earlier match against Purdue. Dake’s victory once again brought the Red to within four of the Illini.
Sophomore Marshall Peppelman wrestled at 165 pounds, nearly pulling off an upset over No. 12 Conrad Polz. The strong performance came on the heels of a win in his earlier match, in which it appeared to the crowd, the coaching staff, and Peppelman himself that he had pinned his opponent, though the referee disagreed.
At 174 pounds, freshman Billy George wrestled well and nearly pulled off an upset over No. 11 George Blanton. George scored a takedown, which brought him to within one point of Blanton with 17 seconds left in the match; however, he was unable to score and lost, 7-6.
Regardless of how close the Red came to upsets at 165 and 174 pounds, the team only managed twin wins in seven matches. Down 17-7, the Red needed to win its last three matches — at least one of which had to be by more than just a decision — in order to come out on top.
Senior Steve Bosak, No. 5 at 184 pounds, kept the Red’s hopes alive with a 4-0 win by decision. Then, senior Cam Simaz, No. 1 at 197 pounds, really electrified the meet’s atmosphere, bringing the crowd to its feet with a pin which earned the Red another six points and brought the score to 17-16.
The pin, however, was not against No. 16 Mario Gonzalez, the Illini expected wrestler at 197. In a surprise move, head coach Jim Heffernan opted to wrestle unranked Martin Smith. Gonzalez, who had wrestled at 197 pounds in his earlier match, was brought in to wrestle in the heavyweight division against senior Maciej Jochym. According to TheMat.com, Heffernan and his staff had been contemplating the move.
“Mario is a tough kid, he’s really athletic and he can give those big guys problems,” said Illinois head coach Jim Hefferman.
Koll said he thought it was a smart move, and Simaz said he was surprised that he wasn’t going to face Gonzalez, whom he recalled wrestling before. Simaz had beaten Gonzalez at the Las Vegas Invitational last season.
Unsportsmanlike conduct from Smith cost the Illini a point to even the score at 16 as Gonzalez and Jochym stepped onto the mat to decide the contest. Jochym’s size gave him the advantage in the strength department, but the skill of Gonzalez prevailed in the end. Teammate Simaz praised Jochym for wrestling well, but noted that Gonzalez’ unorthodox style was the difference in the match.
“He’s been wrestling better and better throughout the year. He’s been really improving. I just don’t think he was ready for that style … funky and kind of rolling around. At heavyweight you just don’t see that,” he said.
Cornell will be off for the next three weeks competing again at the EIWA championships March 3-4.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote about Illinois wrestler Mario Gonzales to Cornell wrestling head coach Rob Koll. In fact, the statement was made by Illinois head coach Jim Hefferman.
Original Author: Brian Bencomo