CHAMPAIGN — Home. Really sweet home.
After last weekend, the Illinois wrestlers are happy to be back at Huff Hall for Saturday’s 4 p.m. match against Nebraska.
“It is good to be home,” Illinois coach Jim Heffernan said.
Illinois enters ranked 13th in the nation, and Nebraska is ranked seventh.
“All of these Big Ten matches are big because they are all good teams,” Heffernan said. “I don’t know if this is any bigger than any other one.”
A week ago, Heffernan’s guys were in the middle of a long trip East. By bus. First stop, Penn State to face the top-ranked Nittany Lions. Penn State defeated the Illini 31-3.
“State College is a very difficult place to get to from Champaign,” Heffernan said. “We made it, and we’re all in one piece. We’ve done it many times.”
After the match, it was back on the bus for the drive to Michigan State. The results against the Spartans were better for Illinois, which pulled out a 29-6 win.
“My concern going up there, after wrestling the No. 1 team in the country, potentially we would have been a little bit flat,” Heffernan said. “The guys showed a lot of energy.”
Heffernan has a basic goal going into the season’s final stretch.
“We’re trying to get on the same page here as we go into the postseason,” Heffernan said. “A lot of it is just health. Physically making sure they are healthy and mentally making sure guys are ready to go.”
The Illini have been dealing with injuries.
“We need to get everybody on the mat at the same time,” Heffernan said. “I think that will go a long way in our confidence.”
There is no confidence issue for Illini 125-pounder Jesse Delgado. The defending NCAA champion has lost twice this season.
“Jesse is great,” Heffernan said. “He’s a superstar.”
And he is getting better.
“He’s spending a lot of time trying to learn different positions and different situations, adding to what he is already good at,” Heffernan said.
Delgado has plenty of help. Jackson Morse has wrestled well at 165 coming off his redshirt year. Zane Richards (133) has been productive as a redshirt freshman. Zac Brunson has a bright future at 157. And Steven Rodrigues (141) was off to a good start before being injured.
The difficult competition in the Big Ten and the National Duals will help the Illini in the closing meets of the season, Heffernan said.
“The league will continue to get better,” Heffernan said. “That’s really saying something. Rutgers and Maryland are both competitive wrestling teams.
“We will have the national champ come out of our conference again this year. No question. We don’t know who yet.”
Saturday’s dual against Nebraska starts an important stretch for the Illinois wrestling team. Here are three important events:
Big Ten Championships
Oklahoma City, Okla.