CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — For eight Illinois wrestlers, the cancellation of the remainder of their season couldn’t have come at a worse time. They were preparing and only days away from heading to the national championships in Minneapolis.

“Even though you’re these tough college athletes, especially in our sport where they’re known as being tough and hard-minded guys, you still need your mother and father and brothers and sisters and friends to get through things like this,” head coach Jim Heffernan said.

One of those eight was Centennial grad Justin Cardani. Wrestling at 125-pounds as a redshirt freshman, Cardani was an at-large pick to nationals with a 16-10 record.

“I was just really excited that I had the opportunity to go and just to try to prove myself,” Cardani said. “I was just really confident and I knew that my team was confident that we were really ready to wrestle.”

Urbana grad Luke Luffman was also an at-large pick. Both in their first year wrestling in the starting 10, Heffernan saw a lot of the same things between the two.

“Skill-wise, Justin is very good. As good as he is, and as well as he did this year, he still lacks a little confidence. I think that will come more with maturity,” Heffernan said. “Luke is in a little bit of the same boat in terms of the confidence things. As a 18 year old kid wrestling in our conference I certainly understand a little bit of self-doubt but skill-wise he’s very good.

Cardani agrees with his head coach, but says he feels more confident now. He finished the year going 7-2 in Big Ten duals.

“I think as the year went on I kept getting more confident and more confident and I knew that I could compete with the best of the best and that the only thing that was stopping me would be myself,” Cardani said,

But his season came to an abrupt halt due to COVID-19, meaning he’s striving that much harder to prove himself next season.

“It motivates me more just to because I didn’t get the necessary opportunity to prove myself and to get our school name out there right now,” Cardani said. “Honestly it motivates me a lot more to just keep working.”

Only six others school qualified more wrestlers to nationals than Illinois. Five of the eight Illini return next season, including Cardani and Luffman.