Sept. 13, 2000
The University of Illinois wrestling program is almost where head coach Mark Johnson would like it to be. After leading the Illini to its highest NCAA finish in 42 years, crowning four All-Americans and his fourth individual national champion in the past six seasons, the 2000-01 Illini could be his strongest team entering his ninth season at Illinois.
"I think that this team has the potential to be the best team that I've had here," Johnson said. "Obviously when you lose a national champion, four-year starter and two-time All-American in Carl Perry, you can't say we're going to be better without him. We're going to miss him. But with the experience that the other eight guys have, that gives us the foundation of a great team."
The other eight guys Johnson is referring to happen to be returning starters and NCAA qualifiers. And, for the first time in Johnson's tenure, the Illini return three All-Americans in 149-pound NCAA runner-up Adam Tirapelle, heavyweight John Lockhart and 197-pounder Pat Quirk.
"To have three returning All-Americans, this is a first for us," Johnson said. "We've been producing All-Americans and have had our share of national champions. There's no question that everyone in the country knows we're a pretty good team. But, no, we're not where I want to be but this is a team that can get us there."
Where Johnson would like to be is contending for the national title.
"We've talked for the last three or four years about challenging for a national championship," he said. "First you have to break into that upper echelon and we're close to being one of those upper echelon teams. Our goal is to get an NCAA trophy and we were very capable last year, we just didn't get that done. I don't want to sound disappointed, we finished sixth in the country, but we did not accomplish our goal last year. So we go back to that same type of goal this year, which is to get into the top four."
With a top four finish in sight, the Illini would return to territory they haven't visited since 1948 when a 4-4 dual team under head coach Glenn Law finished second in the Big Ten then went on to crown four All-Americans en route to a third-place national finish.
With the success the Illini have had in recent years, several career records could fall this season. Johnson enters the season with 92 dual wins at Illinois and needs just eight more victories to tie B.R. Patterson on the Illini's all-time wins list. Patterson recorded 100 wins while coaching from 1951-68.
"There's no question I have personal goals," Johnson said. "The team definitely comes first and the team takes care of my personal goals. All along I've wanted to come in here and change this program around. There's no question I want to leave my mark as being the best coach in Illinois history. We've accomplished a lot of these wins relatively quickly so I'm not going to break these records, I'm going smash these records for wins because I'm going to be here awhile."
A couple of the other marks in the crosshairs this season will be career wins and pins. Senior Adam Tirapelle made a blitz on the recordsbook last season, registering 39 wins which ranks second to only Steve Marianetti's 44 wins in 1992-93. Tirapelle also recorded 15 pins, which is the top-single season effort in Fighting Illini history. These numbers leave Tirapelle within reach to eclipse the career marks. He needs 26 wins this season to become the all-time leader in career victories and 10 falls to surpass Keith Healy's 31 pins from 1984-88.
The following is a look at the 2000-01 Fighting Illini at each weight class. Returning starters with 1999-2000 record in parenthesis.
Returning Starter: Ryan Escobar (26-14 overall, 10-3 duals) Escobar earned the starting spot last season after transferring from Southern Oregon State and placed fourth at both the Las Vegas Invitational and Midlands. He recorded six falls which ranked third on the team and earned one of the Big Ten's two wildcards berths into the NCAA tournament after an eighth-place conference finish. Jon Lanning and Northern Illinois transfer Twan Phan will also compete for the starting spot.
"Ryan Escobar got better by the match last year and he's already highly ranked in the preseason," Johnson said. "After a season of adjusting to our system, I think he's going to have a great year."
Returning Starter: David Stoltz (19-16 overall, 5-6 duals)
Stoltz is a two-year starter at 133 pounds and two-time NCAA qualifier. He placed fifth at the Big Ten championships and will be pushed by Kelly Madden and Chad Hay.
"It's going to be a dogfight," Johnson said. "Stoltz and Kelly Madden were very close in wrestle-offs last year and Chad Hay moved up as well. I think we've got some good depth and it's going to be a battle to make the lineup."
Returning Starter: None
Mike Castillo appears to be the front-runner at 141 but he'll be pushed by Paris Fotos. Castillo spelled an injured Carl Perry last season at the Las Vegas Invitational and in two duals and posted a 4-2 record.
"Mike Castillo has worked his tail off from day one and has never stopped," Johnson said. "He's been able to step in and replace Carl Perry a few times and it's nice to see it fall into the hands of a kid who's an extremely hard worker. I think Paris Fotos will push him, he's a very talented athlete who's getting better. We'll have some good depth."
Returning Starter: Adam Tirapelle (39-3 overall, 14-1 duals)
Big Ten champion Adam Tirapelle returns for his senior season after placing second at the NCAAs last season. He needs only 26 wins and 10 falls to claim Illini career records in victories and pins.
"Adam Tirapelle is one of the greatest young leaders I've been around," Johnson said. "He's someone everyone looks up to, everybody respects and a great leader. I hope he gets those records."
Returning Starter: Griff Powell (26-12 overall, 9-4 duals) Powell is a two-year starter at 157 pounds and was one match away from placing at the NCAAs last season.
"Griff was so close last year," Johnson said. "I think he'll come back with a lot of confidence. If he's confident, Griff Powell has the potential to be a national champion here. He has a tremendous work ethic."
Returning Starter: None
Matt Lackey was a spot-starter last season and compiled a 13-3 record. During the summer, he won the 167.5 pound FILA freestyle national championship and competed at the World Championships in Nantes, France.
"I think people have been waiting to see Matt Lackey in the lineup," Johnson said. "He's explosive, a proven winner, and one of the best athletes on the team. I don't think he'll surprise people because they know how good he is and I feel he's going to be another one in a long line of the guys that come here with national champion potential."
Returning Starter: Ben King (18-11 overall, 13-1 duals) King is a three-year starter for the Illini and has qualified for the NCAA championships two times. He was 8-0 in Big Ten dual competiton last season after going 0-8 as a sophomore.
"Ben King will be a four-year starter for us," Johnson said. "He's improved as a wrestler and there's no question he can be an All-American. He has the ability to be outstanding."
Returning Starter: Nate Patrick (34-5 overall, 14-1 duals)
Nate Patrick had one of the best single seasons in Illini history in 1999-2000. He had 34 wins and nine falls which each rank sixth on the school's single-season lists.
Returning Starter: Pat Quirk (30-12 overall, 11-4 duals)
Quirk is a returning All-American after placing eighth at the NCAAs last season. He is a three-year starter and has qualified for the NCAA championships each year.
"Pat Quirk has been steady for us," Johnson said. "It was nice to see him earn a credential. I think he knows he can be an NCAA champion, just like any of these other guys. Nationally, they're all so close at this weight."
Returning Starter: John Lockhart (32-6 overall, 13-2 duals)
Lockhart stepped in and earned All-America honors in his first year as a starter.
"John Lockhart was no surprise to us last year," Johnson said. "We expect him to challenge for a national championship this year."
"I told the guys in our first team meeting that this is the nucleus of a team that has the potential to win the national championship at some point during their careers," Johnson said. "I know we're capable of finishing in the top four. We're going to be a great dual meet team and our strength is our balance. Are we a top four-caliber team? Yes we are, so let's set those goals and let's get after it."