Second year Illini assistant awarded post season honor
Polz and Blanton earn All-America honor
Delgado and Polz to wrestle the Big Ten title
Delgado is lone Illini to win match against Cowboys
Illini win seven bouts in final conference dual of season
Pictures from the final session of the 2013 Big Ten Wrestling Championships.
Session 1 of the Big Ten Wrestling Championships at the Assembly Hall.
Photos from Illinois vs. Penn State dual on Feb. 3, 2013
During Heffernan's time in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois has finished in the top10 at the NCAA championships on 10 occasions and in the top 15 in 14 of the last 18 seasons.
Heffernan also has mentored seven individual national champions in the last 14 seasons. In 2003, 165-pounder Matt Lackey joined Adam Tirapelle (149, 2001), John Lockhart (heavyweight, 2001), Carl Perry (141, 2000), Eric Siebert (150, 1998), Ernest Benion, Jr. (158, 1995) and Steve Marianetti (150, 1995) in earning NCAA titles since 1993.
Last season, the Illini finished seventh at the NCAA Championships with 62 points, the fourth most points scored at the national tournament in school history. Heffernan also coached four wrestlers to All-American status, as B.J. Futrell (133) earned his third consecutive honor, Jordan Blanton (165) earning his second, while Conrad Polz (174) and Jesse Delgado (125) captured All-American status for the first time in their career. Heffernan also led 197-pounder Mario Gonzalez to his first Big Ten Championship, as the redshirt-sophomore defeated Matt Powless of Indiana to win Illinois' first conference title at that weight since 2001.
For the third-straight season, Illinois had at least two true-freshmen starters in 2008-09, with B.J. Futrell (125), Eric Terrazas (149) and Jordan Blanton (184) becoming regulars in the Illini lineup. A year earlier, Ryan Prater (141) and Grant Paswall (149) turned in solid results throughout the season as rookies, and Jimmy Kennedy (133) and John Dergo (184) battled hard throughout their freshman season in 2006-07. Those seven youngsters have accounted for nine berths in the NCAA Championships over the past three seasons.
Illinois placed nine wrestlers in the 2009 NCAA Championships, all by automatic berths in the first year of the individual RPI rankings, and garnered three All-America finishes with Mike Poeta placing second at 157, Jimmy Kennedy taking fifth at 133 and heavyweight John Wise finishing seventh. Kennedy was one of the most impressive wrestlers as the tournament wore on, winning six straight matches after losing his pigtail bout to reach the consolation semifinals and eventually take fifth. Poeta also won his second Big Ten title in 2009 and Kennedy had a career year, going 36-6. In addition, Illinois finished second at the Big Ten Championships, its best finish since 2006.
Poeta and Kennedy also starred for the Illini in 2008, finishing second and fourth, respectively, at the NCAA Championships. Poeta won his first Big Ten title after starting the season 22-0, while Kennedy put together an 11-match winning streak that included an undefeated Big Ten dual season.
In 2006-07, Kennedy finished the season ranked No. 9 at 133 pounds and Dergo ended the year No. 11 at 184, marking the first time since Carl Perry in 1997 that at least one true-freshman from Illinois ranked in the Top-20. The Illini qualified eight for the 2007 NCAA Championships and were led by Poeta, who notched a third-place finish at 157-pounds and garnered his first All-America honor.
In 2005-06, the tradition of excellence continued as the Illini took home their third-straight Midlands title, joining Iowa and Iowa State as the only three-peat champions. At Midlands, Alex Tirapelle (157) and Pete Freidl (184) took home individual titles, while Poeta (165) and Tyrone Byrd (197) grappled to runner-up finishes. Rounding out the top-eight finishes for Illinois were Donny Reynolds (174) in fifth and Troy Tirapelle (149) in seventh.
At Big Tens, the Fighting Illini finished second, just behind then-No. 1 Minnesota. In all, five Orange and Blue grapplers (Byrd, Freidl, Kyle Ott, Alex Tirapelle and Troy Tirapelle) made conference finals appearances, each finishing second in their respective weight classes.
With the performance at the league tournament, the Illini became the only team to qualify all 10 wrestlers for NCAAs in Oklahoma City in 2006, marking the third time in school history all 10 grapplers made the trip to NCAAs (1995, 2000, 2006). Freidl took home All-America honors with a third-place finish, finishing his career a three-time All-American. On the year, Illinois finished second during the regular season in the Big Ten with a 10-2-1 overall record and 5-2-1 ledger in conference action.
The 2005 squad brought home Illinois' first Big Ten Conference Tournament Championship, and the first for the program in 53 years as Alex Tirapelle (157) and Friedl (174) took home individual league crowns out of five total finalists for the Illini. For the second season in a row, the Illini won the Big Ten regular-season dual meet title with a near-perfect 7-0-1 record. The team finished sixth at the national tournament after qualifying nine wrestlers, while 125-pounder Ott made a repeat appearance in the finals.
In what served as a benchmark for the Illini program, the 2004 season served as a year of firsts as Heffernan helped guide the team to a Big Ten regular-season dual meet title and the first Midlands Tournament team title in program history. The squad concluded the season with a seventh-place finish at nationals, including a finals appearance by Ott at 125. The team brought home five All-America honors, a feat which tied 2004 national champion Oklahoma State, and was the most for Illinois since 1948.
During the 2003 season, Illinois took eight qualifiers to the NCAA Championships from a squad that had five freshmen competing most of the year. The 2003 team finished ninth overall with two national finalists. Matt Lackey finished his climb up the ladder with his win in the finals over Troy Letters for his first national title. Adam Tirapelle became the first Illinois freshman to make the finals as he ensured All-America honors with his second-place finish. For his efforts, Heffernan earned AFLAC Assistant Coach of the Year honors in 2003.
In 2002, during a rebuilding year, Heffernan led a reshaped starting lineup to a 12-4 record and 10th-place finish at nationals. With seven new starters, the Illini still managed to qualify nine wrestlers for NCAAs after a fifth-place finish at Big Tens, equaling the 2001 squad's NCAA representation. That year, the Illini crowned three All-Americans, following two straight seasons of awarding four All-Americans, and Heffernan was named the Assistant Coach of the Year by the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA).
The Illinois wrestling team has progressively made school history year after year. In 2000, the team's sixth-place national finish was the best since 1958, only to be topped by the 2001 finish of fifth place, which was the highest since 1948. The 2001 team also took second at the Big Ten Championships, sent nine athletes to the NCAA Championships and posted a 12-2 dual meet record.
In 1996-97, Heffernan guided the Illini to a 14-1 dual meet record, a third-place finish at the Big Ten Championships and a ninth-place effort at the NCAA Championships. At the time, the third-place outing was the best in school history in 39 years.
Illinois has sent 120 wrestlers to the NCAA championships during Heffernan's tenure, an average of seven qualifiers each year. During the past 15 seasons, the Illini have crowned 43 All-Americans and produced seven national champions (out of 17 finalists).
Heffernan also earned NWCA Assistant Coach of the Year honors in 1995 after Illinois posted a pair of national champions in Steve Marianetti (150) and Ernest Benion (158), a 13-2 dual record and a ninth-place finish at NCAAs.
A 1987 graduate of the University of Iowa, Heffernan was a four-time All-American, while being a member of three Hawkeye NCAA and four Big Ten championship teams. Heffernan captained the Hawkeyes as a senior and grabbed Iowa's Male Athlete of the Year honor in 1987.
Heffernan began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at the University of Iowa before becoming an assistant coach at Lehigh University in 1988. He remained at Lehigh until moving to Oregon State in 1990. He joined Johnson in Champaign in 1992. He also coached the Cadet Wrestling Team at the world championships in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1992, and the USA World Espoir Team in 1989.
Heffernan graduated from national wrestling powerhouse St. Edward High School (Cleveland, Ohio), where he finished as a two-time high school state champion. Heffernan and his wife, Rebecca, live in Champaign and have a son, Sean, and daughter, Alex.