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  • Photo: Sam Janicki

    Photo: Sam Janicki

    2023-24 Illinois Preview

    Illinois - I’m excited to see what season three of Mike Poeta’s Fighting Illini looks like. I feel like season three for a head coach is where you can really start to see some of their recruiting efforts take form, as well as how their specific impact on their returning talent begins to develop. In addition to Poeta and company, they recently picked up 2x NCAA Champion Austin O’Connor, an Illinois prep product returning to his home state after a successful and dominant senior season with North Carolina. This squad has a handful of upperclassmen who were very close to some of their goals last year, including three bloodround finishers which we’ll discuss in a moment. Even where they didn’t have some qualifiers last year, I like the foundation of what they have and look forward to seeing how they develop. It doesn’t hurt either that they are building brand-new wrestling facilities as well. 

    TOP RETURNERS

    When I think of Illinois wrestling, the first person who comes to mind is Lucas Byrd. The 2x All American enters his redshirt junior season ranked sixth in the country. Lucas Byrd has been exciting to watch since the moment he jumped on the scene and wrestles consistently in that he routinely beats who he is supposed to. Byrd had as impressive an NCAA run that you can have without being on the podium. He dropped a 3-2 quarterfinal match to Daton Fix, before dropping his Bloodround match to Jesse Mendez of Ohio State in tiebreakers. Mendez has since bumped to 141 and Byrd remains a dangerous and exciting podium threat. Edmond Ruth is entering his second full season for Illinois. He had a great first year with the squad, going 30-8 overall, and was one win away from being on the podium. He dropped his fifth place B1G championship match, as well as his NCAA bloodround match to Nelson Brands of Iowa. Ruth begins the season ranked 5th at a loaded 174, and if he’s able to add some more consistent attacks to his stingy defense, then he can beat almost anyone. Zac Braunagel had a great season for Illinois at 197. He also finished his season with a loss in the bloodround, but throughout the year had shown that he can hang with the best at the weight. He made the quarterfinals by beating Michael Beard, who was seeded 5th at the time, and dropped a close match to Ethan Laird of Rider (3-2), and then lost 6-4 to Jacob Cardenas of Cornell to end his season. The B1G has five 197 pounders between 7th and 12th in the rankings, and those guys are certainly going to trade regular season wins, but Braunagel is the one who looks the least fun to wrestle. 

    KEY DEPARTURES

    Michael Carr stepped in for the Illini last season and helped them out with a 4-0 dual record, including a fall in the Maryland dual. He helped out where he could in his last year of eligibility, and ultimately ended his career by going 0-2 at the B1G tournament. That being said, 157 was a lot to ask of Carr. He had previously placed 2nd at the B1G tournament as a freshman at 141, and had been a strong competitor when healthy. Thankfully for Illinois, they will have most of their lineup back and ready to go.

    NEWCOMERS

    Replacing the aforementioned Michael Carr at 157 is expected to be Joe Roberts who transferred to Illinois from NC State. He was 11-16 in his first season with Illinois and 3-2 last year. I hope Roberts stays healthy and I expect him to have a good showing for the Fighting Illini. There is some additional depth behind Roberts at 157, so he’ll be pushed all year in the room to continue to improve and hold that spot.

    WRESTLER TO WATCH

    At 125 Illinois has Justin Cardani who is entering his senior season after not competing last year due to injury. He’s a 2x NCAA Qualifier, and should provide some senior leadership to the squad. He’s been someone who has shown that he can get some big wins. He has career wins over Eric Barnett, Michael DeAugustino, and Brock Hudkins, so he can beat some established guys. Additionally, he’s theoretically coming in healthy, so I’m excited to see how he develops. Danny Pucino had some super impressive results from last season. He struggled a bit at B1Gs and as a result, didn’t make it to NCAAs, but we shouldn’t forget what he was able to do in duals. He had pinned Parker Filius of Purdue in their dual, beat Frankie Tal-Shahar of Northwestern, beat Kal Miller of Maryland, and overall was 6-2 in their duals. He has shown he has the upside to compete with the best and I expect the disappointing end to last season will help fuel his fire to hit the ground running for the Fighting Illini. Never bet against Braunagels. For that reason, let’s highlight Danny Braunagel who is entering his last season with Illinois. He has been a 2x NCAA Qualifier to this point, and is expected to maintain his spot in the lineup at 165. For most of his career, he’s hovered in the rankings somewhere between 15 and 25, depending on recent results. He has yet to make it onto the podium, but final chances have a funny way of helping people to break through and finish strong. Dylan Connell is expected to remain the starter at 184 and build upon his 18-18 record from last season. He lost a close match to Brian Soldano of Rutgers at the B1G tournament before having to injury default against Lenny Pinto of Nebraska on the backside. He showed that he can be physical with these guys, and with 3 of the 4 B1G semi-finalists gone, I expect he’ll be able to assert himself as a strong young 184 to watch out for in the B1G. Heavyweight, Luke Luffman, is back for the Fighting Illini as well. He redshirted last season, but should come in refreshed and ready to reintroduce himself to the B1G field. He is already a 2x NCAA Qualifier, and he too will be trying to take that next step and All American.

    TOP OUT-OF-CONFERENCE DUAL

    Illinois begins the season off with a series of great out-of-conference duals. They start with SIUE followed by Navy two days later on 11/2 and 11/4 respectively. Next up is a tri-meet with Central Michigan and North Carolina on 11/19. Next, they travel to Pittsburgh for a dual with the Panthers on 12/3, which leads us to the real answer for Illinois. They travel to Missouri to take on Brian Smith and the Tigers. Missouri is currently the 3rd ranked dual team by Intermat, and they continue to produce some of the high-level talent. The best matchups in this dual will be at 174 with Edmond Ruth taking on Peyton Mocco, and at 197 with Zac Braunagel taking on Rocky Elam.

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