Show, Place, Win?
Jan. 27, 2009
By Larry Watts
It's as simple as three, two and one.
"That the way it's been done here before and there's no reason to think it couldn't happen that way again," says University of Illinois fifth-year senior Mike Poeta. "Adam Tirapelle took third and second before winning the NCAA wrestling championship in 2001 and Matt Lackey had done the same thing when he won his title in 2003."
"I wish it hadn't worked out that way for me because my plan has always been to be a three-time national by this time. So the past three years have been disappointments in my mind and I haven't been happy at all."
After red-shirting as a true freshman in 2005, the Highwood, Ill. native wrestled at 165 in 2006, posting a 28-7-1 record and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. Going down to 157 the following year, he went 25-3-2 while taking third in the NCAA finals after placing fourth in the Big Ten Tournament.
"I had been out a month leading into the Big Ten meet because I had separated a rib," he says. "It even hurt to laugh, so I made sure I hung out with a lot of boring people during that time."
Last year, he claimed his first Big Ten title at 157 and went 35-3-4, the ninth-most wins in Illinois history. Ranked in the top three all season, he claimed three wins in the NCAA Championships before dropping a 5-4 decision to Cornell's Jordan Leen in the title tilt.
"He (Leen) scored some quick, early points and it was too much to come back from," Poeta says. "There were some iffy calls, but you never want to put the national finals in the ref's hands.
"Maybe 10 years down the road I'll look at second and third as good achievements, but right now they're disappointments because it wasn't No. 1. For me, it's all about being at the top of the podium when it's over and it's a very strange feeling if I'm not. After all the amount of time and effort you put into training for this sport, you should expect to feel that way.
"And I don't mean to make that sound cocky because everyone should feel that way or they shouldn't be wrestling. There are 32 guys in each weight class at the national tournament and all 32 should expect to finish on top."
There was a brief time this season when Poeta didn't know if he would get another shot at that elusive NCAA title. During a preseason workout, he ripped the bursa sac (padding) on his left kneecap.
"We tried to let it heal on its own, but it kept swelling up," he says. "After two months of not getting better, I had surgery to take care of the problem and now I have a three to four-inch scar.
"It's been frustrating to miss the early part of this season," he adds. "I shed some tears because I never knew when I would come back and how my knee would respond when I came back. There was a huge chunk of fear and it was really hard on me. You probably wouldn't even notice the absence of a bursa sac in most sports, but there's so much banging of the knees in this sport that you need the protection."
Wearing three pads on his left knee, Poeta finally made his debut Jan. 9 against West Virginia. He scored a technical fall and has added 17-5 and 15-5 major decisions since. The 15-5 verdict came against Iowa's Matt Ballweg last Sunday and represented the Fighting Illini's lone points in a 32-4 Hawkeye victory.
"It wasn't the fact we were wrestling Iowa that fired me up," says Poeta, who is ranked No. 4 nationally despite the late start. "I just love the environment (6,946 fans). The bigger the crowd, the more I like to perform. I feed off pressure situations."
Poeta says he hasn't felt a bit of rust during his comeback. In fact, the two-time Midlands Tournament champion believes his late start makes him fresher than some of the wrestlers he's now facing.
"You have to remember, I put in a lot of time wrestling in meets during the summer," he says. "So the time I had off was the like time many wrestlers have off between last March and the start of wrestling workouts when they return to school.
"That first match back for me was like riding a bike. Once I got out there, it all came back."
And there's nothing like the competition Poeta will be facing week in and week out in the Big Ten to help get him ready for the postseason.
"Year in and year out, it's the toughest conference in the nation by far," he says. "The Big Ten Tournament is just a mini version of the NCAA Tournament. Guys win NCAA titles who haven't even won Big Ten titles."
Poeta got his start in wrestling at the tender age of 5, when he joined the Highland Park Little Giants wrestling club, a program started by his father, Domenic Sr., with assistance from Highland Park High School wrestling coach Dan Wisniewski. Mike's brother, Domenic Jr., who was four years older, had already been in the program since the age of 4.
When Mike was a freshman at Highland Park, he and his brother, who was a senior, both qualified for the high school state finals at Assembly Hall.
"At the time, I didn't realize what a big deal it was," Poeta says. "But it was a very emotional experience for my father."
Domenic Jr. was already at the University of Illinois when Mike arrived and has since graduated. The younger Poeta, who is majoring in community health, doesn't plan on entering the working world soon, even though he is scheduled to graduate at the end of the semester.
"I plan on letting wrestling take me as far as I can for the next few years," he says. "The plan is to win that NCAA title and then continue wrestling internationally. In three and one-half years, I plan on making a run at the Olympic team."