Eighteen years ago today on March 17, 2001, something happened with Illinois wrestling that has occurred only three times in its 108-year varsity history.
It was the day when two Illini were crowned NCAA champions.
Two weeks earlier at the Big Ten Championships, a pair of Illini senior grapplers —top-seeded 184-pound Nate Patrick and fourth-seeded Pat Quirk (197 pounds) — both won individual titles, leading Illinois to a second-place team finish behind Minnesota. The Illini also got runner-up finishes from a trio of wrestlers: senior Adam Tirapelle (149), sophomore Matt Lackey (165) and junior heavyweight John Lockhart.
Heading to the NCAA meet in Iowa City, Iowa, coach Mark Johnson took nine Illini with him and all nine won their first-round matches. Mike Castillo (141), Griff Powell (157) and second-seeded Patrick (184) all got to the round of eight, but each man lost his third match. Now, only 11th-seeded Ryan Escobar at 125 pounds, seventh-seeded Quirk, fifth-seeded Lackey, fourth-seeded Lockhart and third-seeded Tirapelle remained alive for possible championships.
In the quarterfinals at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Escobar lost to third-seeded Leroy Vega of Minnesota, 13-3, but four teammates — Tirapelle (11-2 over Central Michigan's Ty Morgan), Lackey (3-1 OT over Oklahoma's Robbie Waller), Quirk (8-4 over Nebraska's Brad Vering) and Lockhart (4-2 OT over Purdue's Jake Vercelli) — all advanced to the semifinals with victories.
Just one of the four remaining Illini grapplers lost in the semis. Unfortunately, Lackey drew top-ranked Don Pritzlaff of Wisconsin. The former Moline High School star wrestled well, but lost by a score of 6-3 to the eventual 165-pound champ.
Tirapelle shut out second-seeded Jared Lawrence of Minnesota, 6-0, to advance to the finals in the 149-pound division, while Quirk beat eleventh-seeded Mike Fickell of Pennsylvania, 8-4, to get to the championship match at 197.
The most exciting semifinal match pitted Lockhart against top-ranked heavyweight and Olympic bronze medalist Garrett Lowney of Minnesota. Twice earlier that season, Lowney had beaten Lockhart, including denying the Mahomet-Seymour giant a Big Ten title. This time it came down to a tiebreaker period and Lockhart notched the victory with a quick escape.
In the Saturday night finals, Tirapelle started things off with a bang, sealing a 5-3 victory over Lehigh's Dave Esposito with a takedown with 32 seconds left. The senior from Clovis, Calif., jumped off the raised mat into the arms of his head coach.
"I was pretty sure he could take it," Tirapelle joked afterwards.
Quirk's string of upset victories finally came to an end when the ex-Hinsdale Central High standout lost to top-ranked Mark Munoz of Oklahoma State, 5-2.
In the evening's final match, Illinois' Lockhart faced his friend, No. 2-seeded Tommy Rowlands of Ohio State. After finishing regulation time tied at one apiece, the two giants wrestled to a scoreless first overtime period. In the second OT, Lockhart escaped his elected down position with 11 seconds left and the national title was his.
In addition to crowning two individual champions, Illinois posted its best team finish in 55 years. Only Minnesota, Iowa, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma placed ahead of the Illini.
"We proved that we're doing the right things," Johnson said.
Today: Annie Fleming, softball (23)
Monday: Kip Pope, swimming (72)
Tuesday: Troy Pryor, football (34)
Wednesday: Mark Coomes, basketball coach (67)
Thursday: Forry Wells, football/baseball (48)
Friday: Michael Massey, baseball (21)
Saturday: Joe Bertrand, basketball (28)
By Mike Pearson, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore (Third Edition now available in stores). Get more Illini birthdays, trivia and historical tidbits daily on Twitter@B1GLLL. His website is www.SportsLLL.com.