CHAMPAIGN — He's churning inside. A four-time wrestling All-American and Iowa's Male Athlete of the Year in 1987, you know Jim Heffernan is a competitor.
But when his No. 6 Illini tangle with No. 3 Minnesota on Friday night at Huff, the third-year coach may appear as the most relaxed guy in the house.
"I hear people saying that," Heffernan said. "When Mark Johnson was head coach, he did the yelling from the sideline, and I took care of warmups for the next wrestler. I still have a tendency that way.
"I do my coaching in practice. There are three of us on the sideline, and the guys on the mat can only hear so much. And, besides, what we shout at them might not register anyway. Half of it falls on deaf ears. They know the score, they know the riding time, they know what they have to do.
"Maybe we can trigger a reaction by calling attention to something, but I don't want to overload them in the heat of the battle."
Some UI fans might consider this a novel coaching style. You might see a vociferous coach on his knees with hands cupped around his mouth. But a more calm approach has been working as well for Heffernan as it has for Butler basketball coach Brad Stevens (consecutive NCAA runner-up finishes). The UI matmen are 10-1 in a season with one sour note, a 20-13 loss at Iowa.
What we're witnessing is another in a series of strong showings by Illini non-revenue sports, as happened in volleyball and soccer, and men's gymnastics, baseball, golf and tennis.
But hold your breath Friday night. The Gophers are loaded.
"In my opinion, Minnesota has a better dual team than Iowa ... and that's saying something," Heffernan said. "When you walk out on the mat at Iowa, 8,000 fans make that a really difficult environment. In my mind, you're down 2-0 before you start. We were in it the whole time, and it was tied with two matches to go. Now, to beat Minnesota, we'd need a couple of upsets and, at the same time, hold on where we're favored. It would have to be above and beyond."
The good news is that Illinois is reaching mid-January in good health, which wasn't the case a year ago.
"It was hard to live through the injuries last season," he said, "but it wasn't hard to see that we could be a lot better this year. And we have only one senior, Eric Terrazas (No. 10 in nation at 149), in the lineup."
Terrazas, a former walk-on considered too small to continue his quarterback play at Wheaton North, is one of four UI leaders. The others are junior B.J. Futrell (133, No. 5), freshman Jesse Delgado (125, No. 5) and junior Jordan Blanton (174). Collectively, those four wrestlers have 71 wins vs. 10 losses. Terrazas is the current Big Ten Co-Wrestler of the Week, having beaten two top-10 foes last weekend.
"Terrazas once considered Division III football but, at 145 pounds, his size was against him," Heffernan said. "I think his goal is still to be a football coach. He was forced into the lineup here as a freshman when Troy Tirapelli was injured. This is by far his best year. He and Delgado have exceeded expectations.
"Terrazas has been beating All-America candidates. He has a very controlled style, and sometimes he finds an extra gear. We need him to find that gear more often."
In the spotlight
Friday's feature match will take place at the lowest weight classification. Delgado, a former California state champion who came from Cal Poly with new associate head coach Mark Perry, defeated former NCAA champion Matt McDonough at Iowa. Now he finds himself opposite the current No. 1, Zach Sanders of Minnesota.
And then there's Futrell, another lightweight with heavyweight convictions. Said Heffernan:
"He is a grounded young Christian involved in bible study. He sets a great example. He only weighed 103 pounds when he attended Mount Carmel in Chicago. He is an exceptional leader."
The Illini tuned up for Friday night's "Great Escape" showdown — admission is free, and the first 800 fans get free food — by winning three matches in three days last weekend: 24-9 over Purdue, 38-6 over Lock Haven and 31-9 over No. 8 Michigan. The amazing part is that they wrestled their best on the third day against a strong Wolverine team. The 22-point margin was the widest in a dual meet in two years.
"We rested four of the regulars against Lock Haven," Heffernan said. "Futrell had a touch of the flu, but we stayed strong Sunday against Michigan."
Now comes a far greater challenge. Win or lose, UI wrestling is on the upswing again and, with a corps of young standouts and only one senior, should be even better when Illinois hosts the Big Ten Championships at the Assembly Hall in 2013.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top of the heap
Illinois has made a steady climb into the nation’s Top 10, joining five other Big Ten programs:
TEAM VS. ILLINI
1. Oklahoma State
2. Iowa Dec. 2 (L, 20-13)
3. Penn State March 3*
4. Minnesota Friday
7. Nebraska March 3*
8. Ohio State March 3* 9. Missouri
* Big Ten Championships at West Lafayette, Ind.