Illinois wrestler Mike Poeta, a senior 157-pounder, already has filled the trophy case. Yet there's something big missing. He wants a national title.
Illinois wrestler Mike Poeta, a senior 157-pounder, already has filled the trophy case.
He finished third at the NCAA championships as a sophomore, then lost as the top seed in the title match last season, a one-point decision that was "the most devastating thing in my life,'' he said.
Poeta owns titles from the Midlands and Las Vegas Invitationals -- the two biggest in the regular season -- and the Big Ten.
Yet there's something big missing. He wants a national title.
"This is the time that everybody remembers,'' Poeta said. "All the stuff you do in the season is training for the national tournament. In my previous years, I've pretty much won every tournament leading up to the national tournament. You know what? No one cares. No one remembers it.''
Illinois completed the dual meet season Sunday and has started preparing for the Big Ten championships on March 7-8 at Penn State and the NCAA meet in St. Louis on March 19-21.
Poeta entered the postseason with a 10-0 record and a No. 2 national ranking after missing the first half of the season because of a pair of knee surgeries. He ruptured a bursa sac in his left knee in the offseason and needed another surgery to clean up an infection.
"It's been a blessing,'' Illinois coach Mark Johnson said. "He's not going through the bumps and bruises of a long season.''
A two-time Class AA state champion from Highland Park who was rated as the nation's No. 1 recruit in 2004, Poeta's aggressive style is built around his speed.
No fewer than the top five from Poeta's weight class are expected to advance from the Big Ten championships to the NCAA meet, where Cornell's Jordan Leen returns as the defending champion after his 5-4 victory over Poeta in the championship match. Edinboro's Gregor Gillespie is ranked first in the weight class after winning the NCAA title at 149 pounds in 2007.
With a 98-13 career record after the 35-3 mark last season, Poeta carries the best shot at ending Illinois' drought.
Seven Illini won NCAA titles since Johnson became head coach for the 1992-93 season, but Illinois hasn't had a national champion since 2003. The clock is ticking on Poeta.
"The guys in Afghanistan and Iraq, that's pressure,'' Poeta said. "What we do is fun. In the past three years, I put way too much pressure on myself. Not only was I wrestling the other guy, I was wrestling myself. There was so much pressure, I was holding back.''
Junior 133-pounder Jimmy Kennedy (24-3) began the week ranked No. 2 nationally. Freshman 184-pounder Jordan Blanton (25-7) is No. 12, and he not only leads the Illini in wins but also pins (8). Iowa is the dominant favorite in Big Ten, with Ohio State the likely runner-up, followed by Illinois.
When the Illinois bench combined for a season-low 23 minutes in the 70-68 victory at Ohio State on Sunday, sophomore guard Alex Legion didn't even touch the floor besides warm ups.
The transfer from Kentucky is 2-for-19 from the 3-point line in the last 10 games, and with concerns over his defense, Legion may get trimmed from the playing rotation as Illinois heads farther into the stretch run.
"I told him in an individual meeting, we can be patient,'' Weber said. "At the same time we're fighting to get into the NCAA Tournament. We're fighting to stay up in the Big Ten race. You can only be so patient.''
No. 20 Illinois (22-6 overall, 10-5 in the Big Ten) hosts Minnesota (20-7, 8-7) on Thursday (6 p.m., Big Ten Network).
Against Ohio State, the Illini starters were hot. The Illini shot 58 percent from the field overall and 66 percent from the 3-point line in the second half.
"The other guys aren't quite as good against the zone,'' Weber said.
In other news
- Former Illini guard Jamar Smith, a junior at Division II Southern Indiana, was named Great Lakes Valley Conference player of the week after averaging 25 points, six rebounds, 3.5 assists and two steals in victories over Missouri-St. Louis and Missouri-Science and Technology.
- Senior catcher Lana Armstrong earned Big Ten softball player of the week after leading the Illini to a 5-0 record over the weekend. She hit .571 with three homers and 10 RBI. She had a 1.286 slugging percentage.
- Junior shortstop Brandon Wikoff, a graduate of Bartonville Limestone, earned Big East-Big Ten Challenge all-tournament after leading Illinois to a 2-1 record while batting .417.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.