State of disunion: Rival Illini thump NU

Robert Eccles

Illinois is at the top of the conference; Northwestern is at the bottom. There’s no love lost between the Fighting Illini and the Wildcats — they know each other, but they don’t like each other.

Many of the wrestlers crossed paths in state and all-star tournaments. Sophomore Jason Erwinski knows the Illini well and both respects and despises them come game time.

“From watching Illinois wrestle, they do what it takes to win,” Erwinski said. “But I can’t stand Illinois. I hate them with a passion.”

The hate festered on the trip down to Champaign Friday as the Cats envisioned their first Big Ten win of the season. Instead, the Illini routed NU (3-7, 0-2 Big Ten) 40-3 and made it a long, frustrating trek back to Evanston.

“There’s really nothing you could say after a match like that,” Erwinski said. “Overall it was ugly.”

Boasting a lineup with seven nationally ranked players, the Illini (7-0, 1-0) had plenty to say on the mat.

The match started off perfectly for Illinois — No. 2 Nate Patrick pinned Brendan Curran at 184 pounds, and No. 8 Pat Quirk came on strong at 197 pounds to finish off Will Marcantel by a score of 8-4, setting the stage for the dual of the heavyweights.

NU’s Josh Saul narrowly lost to Joe Lockhart a year ago. This year, the seventh-ranked Lockhart got the early edge on Saul, who is ranked 17th. Lockhart’s quickness enabled him to escape several good moves from Saul, and he hung on for a 7-4 victory.

“Saul had a pretty good match against their kid,” NU coach Tim Cysewski said. “But it came down to little things. Josh had the guy’s leg up in the air three times but couldn’t finish it. You can’t squander opportunities.”

Both of NU’s Big Ten matches have come against top-five teams. The Cats started off the conference season with a 45-3 loss to Iowa — the defending Big Ten champion — before Friday’s setback to Illinois, who finished second a year ago.

The Illini kept chugging along with wins at the three lightest weight classes. With the score 25-0 — and the Illini win already clinched — Illinois sent No. 1 Adam Tirapelle out to face freshman Ryan Cumbee at 149 pounds. Tirapelle continued his undefeated season by pinning Cumbee at the 5:18 mark.

Following Cumbee was Erwinski, who battled No. 19 Griff Powell. Powell won their previous head-to-head matchup during Erwinski’s freshman year. Powell is a defensive wrestler whose matches tend be low-scoring affairs, Erwinski said. This match was no exception — but Erwinski changed his style to squeak by with a 3-2 upset.

“I got the first takedown and just held on,” said Erwinski, a 157-pounder. “It worked this time, but I can’t do that again.”

Erwinski’s win prevented a shutout and upped his record to 9-3 overall. Illinois continued to cruise in the final two weight classes, including the 174-pound battle between Illinois’ John Sears and NU’s Andrew Curran. The two had squared off before, in high school, with Sears earning the win.

Despite Erwinski’s individual success, he said he was disturbed by the Cats’ landslide loss.

“I’m really disappointed,” he said. “We simply didn’t wrestle up to our capability.”

The Cats — who will try for their first Big Ten win Friday against No. 20 Wisconsin — have always targeted the Big Ten championships in March, viewing the regular season as a chance to gain valuable experience against the nation’s best.

Erwinski and Saul have accepted the responsibility of helping the newcomers endure the long regular season.

“You go through a meat grinder,” Erwinski said. “Everyone in the Big Ten is good.”