Huth: Heffernan set to enjoy weekend

Huth: Heffernan set to enjoy weekend

In his role as head coach of the University of Illinois wrestling team, there will be much to keep Jim Heffernan occupied this weekend when the IHSA state tournament hits the Assembly Hall.

Of course, Heffernan will want to catch every second of Illini signee Jed Lightfoot's matches. A year after placing second at 125 pounds in Class 2A, the Yorkville senior has his eyes on a 140-pound crown.

There will be plenty of other must-watch matches, too, for the first-year head coach and 18th-year UI staffer. With the state's best on display in one location, it's a convenient opportunity for Heffernan to evaluate dozens of potential recruits.

"There's always a lot of people you need to make mental notes on ... and evaluate the type of kid you want to have in the program," he said.

Then there's the chance to renew acquaintances with the guys Heffernan once coached who themselves now are coaching. By his estimate, "24 to 25" former Illini wrestlers are now high school coaches in the state.

"It's great to be able to catch up with them, even if it's just for a few minutes," Heffernan said. "They're obviously busy."

Taking it all in

Given the long hours of this two-day meet, however, Heffernan won't be so busy that he can't indulge in an all-too-rare pleasure. That would be watching the sport he loves – unfettered by the intense mental and emotional involvement of coaching or the tunnel-vision focus of scouting a particular prospect – for the simple joy of it.

"I don't get very many opportunities to sit down and enjoy wrestling," Heffernan said. "There'll be some work involved (at state), but for the most part I enjoy opportunities to sit down and watch wrestling because I don't get to do it very much as a spectator."

Like many of the coaches and some of the spectators who'll be at the Assembly Hall this weekend, Heffernan has his own state-meet history. A three-time state qualifier at St. Edward High in suburban Cleveland, he was an Ohio state champion in 1981 and '82.

One of Heffernan's most vivid memories was watching older brother Brian win the Ohio heavyweight crown in 1978, the same year St. Edward won its first of 25 state team titles. Jim Heffernan, then an eighth-grader, was in the stands to see Brian and the Eagles begin a dynasty,

"That was a big deal to me," the UI coach said. "I looked up to those guys. They set the foundation."

Heffernan's recollections of his part in building upon that foundation have less to do with what he accomplished at state, he says, than the work it took to get there.

"That's the stuff I remember more than the actual events," he said. "The event was the reward for all the stuff you did before that."

Gym dandy

A big part of that reward for Heffernan was the opportunity to compete at St. John Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

"It was loud and just a lot of history in that building because the state tournament had been there for so many years," he said. "As a kid, that's kind of your goal is to wrestle in St. John Arena."

For Heffernan and his teammates, it was hostile territory. By then, the bull's-eye on powerhouse St. Edward's back was sizable.

"Because we were so good, everybody except our little section cheered against us," he said. "And that made for kind of a fun environment for us. We'd sit and talk and wonder who was the next guy to go out and shut the crowd up type of thing. That's kind of the way we approached it."

This weekend, Heffernan will be part of the crowd. Although he might not be cheering, there won't be a bigger fan in the building ... of the sport.

"It is enjoyable and something I look forward to every year," he said.

Jeff Huth is a News-Gazette staff writer. You can reach him at 217-351-5384 or at jhuth@news-gazette.com.