CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — Ten months after COVID-19 shut down the Illinois wrestling season and stopped all NCAA sports, the Illini are back on the mat. The Illini won their first meet over the weekend, blowing out Indiana 39-3. Despite the competition stopping, the Illini never really slowed down. Workouts continued over the summer, with wrestlers spread out across the country. They all stayed in touch by sharing their videos online with coaches.
“Just going to parks as Heff (Jim Heffernan) said, just doing whatever you can to keep yourself busy every day,” Illinois redshirt sophomore wrestler Justin Cardani said.
The Illini have been back on campus for months but competition was put on hold until this week. The wrestlers are in the Big Ten protocol and are tested daily for COVID-19. Illinois head coach Jim Heffernan says the season opening meet against the Hoosiers didn’t feel much different from the past.
“Once they got in the gym, they played the national anthem, it kind of felt natural,” Heffernan said. “Other than every time you turn around we’re yelling at someone to put their mask up or I’m pulling my mask up, it was really kind of normal. Especially after the way it ended last year.”
The Illini are bookended by townies Justin Cardani and Luke Luffman. Both qualified for the NCAA Championships last year before it was ultimately canceled. The former WCIA 3 Athlete of the Year winners combined to win 33 matches as a redshirt freshman and true freshman last season, respectively. Centennial grad Cardani (125) and Urbana native Luffman (HWT) stayed at the same weight coming into this season.
“Great attitude for a heavyweight who aren’t normally known for their great work ethics,” Heffernan said. “This kid is a gym rat, he loves to be in the gym, loves to be around wrestling, loves to learn, he’s always asking questions. He’s been great.”
Through everything they had to go through to get to this point, the end goal hasn’t changed for either guy, as the Illini (1-0) get set to host their first home meet on Sunday, welcoming Ohio State and Wisconsin to State Farm Center. Per Big Ten policy, no fans are allowed at any matches this season.
“I still have the same goal of being an All-American, still having the best team that we possibly can,” Cardani said. “The goals still there as much as we’re grateful and excited to compete, we’re still trying to chase that goal of being an All-American and national champs.”