Freshman Jesse Delgado providing spark for fifth-ranked Illinois
Jesse Delgado was supposed to be intimidated.
The Illinois freshman walked onto the mat for his first Big Ten dual meet and was greeted by a raucous Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd of 7,000-plus fans that expected him to fall.
But the 19-year-old Delgado did the unthinkable. He fell behind 6-2, but never stopped wrestling and came away with a stunning 11-7 overtime win over NCAA champion Matt McDonough of Iowa.
The win at 125 pounds silenced the Hawkeye crowd and sent shockwaves across the country.
One of the few people who were not surprised by Delgado's performance was Illinois associate head coach Mark Perry.
"Jesse's in it to win it" said Perry, a two-time NCAA champion for Iowa. "He can win the national title this year."
Delgado has proven he is more than a one-hit wonder. The freshman from Gilroy, Calif., has won his share of big matches this season.
The two most recent wins provided a huge spark as Illinois won the National Duals Mat Mayhem Regional this past weekend at Cornell.
Delgado delivered a pin over All-American and seventh-ranked Jarrod Patterson of Oklahoma before downing No. 6 Frank Perrelli of Cornell 8-3 in the regional dual meets.
"Jesse beat two guys ranked in the top eight back-to-back" Illinois coach Jim Heffernan said. "That's pretty impressive, especially for a freshman. He set the tone for us in both dual meets. Those were two gigantic wins for our team. Jesse understands that role where he can get everybody going."
The No. 5 Illini advanced to the National Duals Final Four where they will face No. 1 Oklahoma State in one semifinal on Sunday in Stillwater. No. 3 Minnesota will battle No. 4 Iowa in the other semifinal.
"It's exciting for our program and exciting to have this opportunity" Delgado said. "And it's huge for us to have success when it comes to recruiting. Our team has been wrestling well."
Delgado is 26-4 and ranked sixth nationally for the Fighting Illini. His attacking mentality has enabled him to dominate most of his opponents.
"Jesse wrestles harder than any guy in the United States in college" Perry said. "He wrestles hard from whistle to whistle. He's very fast and very quick, and he has a gas tank to go with it. No one can stop his speed. He just has to take better shots at times and he has to learn to put it all together."
Delgado has pinned six opponents and defeated another eight by technical fall this season.
Not bad for a guy who placed fourth in the California state high school tournament less than two years ago.
"Jesse is still learning" Perry said. "He didn't really have any high-level training until he stepped in a college room."
Not heavily recruited coming out of high school, Delgado signed with Cal Poly. Even though he struggled at state as a senior, Delgado was a four-time state placewinner and won a California state title as a junior.
He won High School Nationals as a senior in folkstyle.
Delgado had a strong redshirt season for Cal Poly and won the FILA Junior Nationals in freestyle this past April. Perry said Delgado is a strong candidate to make the U.S. Junior World Team this year in freestyle.
"I knew from the first workout that Jesse was going to be special" Perry said. "The intensity and focus he brings to practice every day is impressive. He's a very hard worker. And he's a gamer. He can be a guy like (three-time NCAA champion and Olympic silver medalist) Stephen Abas. That's how good this kid is."
When Perry left Cal Poly to move to Illinois following the 2010-11 college season, Delgado elected to follow him to Champaign-Urbana.
"When Mark coached me at Cal Poly, I got 10 times better the year I was there with him" Delgado said. "He is the perfect coach for me. He's a great motivator. Mark's instilled an attacking style of wrestling in me. If you are up 7-1, he wants you to win by major decision. He wants me to wrestle aggressively."
Perry's impact on Delgado has benefited the freshman off the mat as well.
"Mark has changed my life" Delgado said. "He's my coach, but he's also like an older brother. If I have problems, he is there for me. He's taught me a lot about wrestling and about life. We have a very close relationship."
Delgado nearly had a second win this season over a No. 1-ranked wrestler when he battled then-No. 1 Zach Sanders of Minnesota in a Big Ten dual meet.
Delgado charged out aggressively, building a commanding 9-1 lead. He led 11-4 entering the final period before Sanders staged a furious rally to win the match 14-13.
"I wrestled like a freshman in that match" Delgado said. "He kept wrestling hard and he was scoring off some of my shots. I have to wrestle smarter than that."
Delgado is expected to face either McDonough or Sanders in his team's second dual on Sunday at the National Duals finals.
"I had a big win over McDonough, but it doesn't really mean anything now" Delgado said. "What's really important is what happens at the national tournament. I knew I could compete against him, and I know he will come at me and wrestle hard if we meet this weekend. There is no pressure on me. He's the No. 1 guy. I am excited to face him or Sanders."
Heffernan, an NCAA champion for Iowa, knows how difficult it is for a freshman to excel as a first-time starter at the Division I level.
"What Jesse's done doesn't happen every day" Heffernan said. "He's wrestled well. His expectations are extremely high and he is an ultra-competitive kid. He's not afraid to compete against anybody. He holds himself to a very high standard."