The timing couldn’t be better. For all of it.
In two months, the Illinois wrestling program hosts the Big Ten Championships at the Assembly Hall ... with a team capable of winning the big trophy.
Last time the Big Ten came to town for its premier wrestling event, Mark Johnson’s Illini — with current head coach Jim Heffernan serving as the lead assistant — took second. That was back in 2001.
“It is a big deal to have it,” Heffernan said. “A lot of our alums are going to be jealous they didn’t have the opportunity to wrestle at home.
“For the Illinois guys, these guys have had a lot of success in the Assembly Hall, having wrestled the state meet there. I think there’s a comfort factor there that might help us.”
Heffernan’s current team is ranked No. 5 nationally. It showed its depth and potential by winning the Midlands Championships in Evanston.
Without the benefit of any individual titles. Two Illinois wrestlers finished second (Jesse Delgado at 125 and B.J. Futrell at 141). Jordan Blanton was third at 174. And two others — Conrad Polz at 165 and Mario Gonzalez at 197 — were fifth. It was the school’s first Midlands title since 2006.
If Illinois hopes to win the Big Ten and/or NCAA titles, it will have to happen the same way it did in Evanston: Lots of points from a bunch of different wrestlers.
“What was more important to me was the way we had to win,” Heffernan said. “Going in in a tight race, where every match counted, where every point counted. It does mean something.”
Heffernan’s happy to know his wrestlers weren’t satisfied with the one trophy. If anything, they went the other way.
“It’s a big honor,” Futrell said. “But to be honest it didn’t feel as good to the team. A lot of us didn’t feel we had wrestled up to our potential. That says a lot.”
The teams Illinois competes against during the regular season and in the Big Ten meet will be the top challengers at the NCAA meet. Two-time defending national champion Penn State is currently ranked No. 1 in the nation, followed closely by Minnesota, Iowa and Ohio State. Next comes Illinois, which was No. 5 in the latest polls.
The Big Ten has always been a national power, going back to Iowa’s dominants days with Dan Gable in charge. But the conference might be at a high point now, led by Cael Sanderson’s Nittany Lions.
“In previous years, it’s been really balanced,” Heffernan said. “Now, it’s really top-heavy. There are six or seven really good teams.”
Illinois makes the “good” list after a seventh-place finish at the NCAA meet last year.
“That’s pretty good company,” Heffernan said.
The team has made gains under the fourth-year coach. His first two teams finished 23rd and 22nd in the NCAA meet. Last year, it was seventh.
With four All-Americans and two others advancing to the final 12, it was the most All-Americans for Illinois since 2005.
Another step is possible this season. Maybe one toward the top.
“That’s the goal,” Heffernan said.
Heffernan’s program has received a strong commitment from the school and athletic director Mike Thomas. Heffernan was given a three-year contract extension and allowed to make an important hire to his staff, adding associate head coach Mark Perry.
“As a head coach, you might have one opportunity to make a great hire,” Heffernan said. “I had to find who I thought was the best guy and could make the most immediate impact. I pay attention to what programs are making gains and what programs are turning the corner quickly. Two of those programs, Mark was involved with.
“He’s done a tremendous job. He’s one of their generation. They understand him. He understands them. It’s a very good thing.”
Strong recruiting led by Perry has helped add to competition on the team. Guys can no longer count on a starting spot like they might have in the past.
“We’ve got to keep doing that,” Heffernan said. “We’ve got to keep making it competitive in here (Huff Hall wrestling room). You’ve got to have guys who are pushing you every day, guys who are making you sweat every day. Our front line traditionally has been very strong. Our best years have been when we have a really good No. 2 and really good No. 3 guy.”
Heffernan has plans for the program, including the continued pursuit of top competition for Huff Hall. He would like to be able to host a National Duals regional.
“In order to do that, we need some excitement,” Heffernan said. “We need some people in the gym. We need some people fired up about our program.”
The wrestlers want to be part of a program that is talked about on campus. In a nice way. Every tournament title, every win against a national power, makes that more likely.
“We’re doing everything we can on our end to put out a great product,” Heffernan said.
“We have a pretty good record of success in wrestling. Our kids keep their nose clean and they do the right things.”
In his final season in the program, Futrell is eager to set a standard for future teams.
“We’re trying to break into that top tier of teams and compete for a national title and be known,” Futrell said. “Right now, I feel like we’re not really in the conversation to win a national title. That’s something we’ve set our eyes on.”
Futrell isn’t alone.
“If you ask us, we’re definitely in the hunt to win the national title,” Delgado said.