Wrestling: Northwestern set to end historic poor run of form against Illinois on Friday


Daily file photo by Alison Albeda

Conan Jennings spars with an opponent. On Friday, NU could beat Illinois for the first time in his career.

Greg Svirnovskiy, Reporter


The disappointment was palpable last year when a 6-0 Northwestern took on Illinois with sky-high momentum and an undefeated season on the line. The Wildcats lost an 18-17 heartbreaker.

The year before, NU lost another disappointing one to the Fighting Illini, pushing its home record under .500.

Barack Obama was in the first term of his presidency the last time NU (3-10, 1-7 Big Ten) beat Illinois (2-7, 1-6), a 27-13 win in January 2011. Since then, there have been seven straight years of losing to the in-state rival with results ranging from one-point nail biters to 22-point snooze fests.

The two sides will face off again Friday at the Welsh-Ryan Arena for the home team’s annual Alumni Night. Decades of wrestlers are expected to be in attendance, all with their own memories of Illinois battles.

Senior Conan Jennings said he wants to beat No. 24 Illinois badly. He’s endured years of losses against the Fighting Illini. For him, legacy and state supremacy are on the line.

“There’s definitely something special going on between the two schools,” Jennings said. “Being in state and all that. You really want to show that you’re on top there.”

Last week against No. 4 Michigan, Jennings earned his second win of the season by beating Mason Parris, the sixth-ranked 285-pound wrestler in the country. Still, NU lost to the Wolverines, 30-9.

Jennings said the team can establish momentum to help its postseason tournament seeding with wins against its opponent Friday. However, the fact that they’ll be going up against their in-state rivals is enough motivation, Jennings said.

“Just getting a win in general in that match would be huge,” he added. “We’ve had it coming for a long time. We just need to step up and take that final step. It’ll be pretty easy.”

The Cats will see an Illinois team with significantly less talent and reputation than a number of the Big Ten teams they’ve faced this season, such as No. 1 Penn State and No. 6 Ohio State. Still, coach Matt Storniolo said they’re preparing as they have all season, with maximum intensity and determination.

Storniolo pointed to NU’s loss in East Lansing last Friday, when the Cats fell 30-10 against an unranked Michigan State, as reason for not underestimating opponents.

“Illinois is a tough team, but they’re not at the same caliber as Michigan,” he said. “You got to be ready to go out there and compete at your highest level, no matter who the competition is.”

Last weekend’s losses against Michigan State and Michigan dropped NU to 3-10 on the season, a record the team can improve upon with wins against Illinois and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. The Cats will face the Cougars on Feb. 23 to close out the season.

Storniolo said the key is for the Cats is to fight like they have all year, maintaining their consistency and skill.

“Stay the course,” Storniolo said. “We’ve got a plan in place, guys have been sticking to it. Nothing changes from that as we head into the end of the season here and get ready for the postseason. It’s just reinforcing the good habits, reinforcing positive thoughts and then getting them ready to go and finish the season.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @GSvirnovskiy