Yet to be determined.
The showdown between No. 5 Michigan and No. 2 Illinois yesterday at Cliff Keen Arena was supposed to be a watershed moment in the race for the regular season Big Ten wrestling crown, but instead it ended in a 17-17 tie. Wolverine Ryan Bertin defeated rival Alex Tirapelle, 3-2 in the marquee match up of the meet. With Michigan (3-0-1 Big Ten, 11-3-1 overall) down 17-14 after nine matches, heavily favored Michigan heavyweight Greg Wagner could have won the match with a pin or major decision but earned just a 6-2 win over Illinois’ Mike Behnke to tie the match.
The stalemate prevented either team from gaining the upper hand in the conference standings and could ultimately result in another tie come season’s end.
“It’s one of those weird things — I don’t know how to act when we tie,” Illinois coach Mark Johnson said. “I think it’s only the second time in my career of twenty-some years coaching that it has ended in a tie, so it’s a weird feeling.”
In a meet where 15 of 20 wrestlers were ranked, only one match was considered a toss-up — the 157-pound bout between No. 4 Bertin and No. 2 Tirapelle.
The two wrestlers split their six previous bouts entering the meet and four of which occurred in the postseason. In 2003, Bertin bested Tirapelle in the Big Ten Tournament and in the NCAA championship match. Last year, Tirapelle beat Bertin in the Big Ten championship match before dropping their rematch just weeks later in the NCAA third-place bout.
“We both have a great amount of respect for each other,” Bertin said. “When it comes down to competing, I think we’ve definitely established a bit of a rivalry over the years.”
To the delight of the 1,551 fans that nearly filled the arena, the Michigan senior opened the match on the offensive and scored an early takedown to take a 2-0 lead. By the end of the second period, each wrestler had earned an escape point to bring the score to 3-1 with only two minutes remaining.
Tirapelle quickly escaped to open the third period, but Bertin successfully defended the reigning Big Ten champion’s attacks as the seconds ticked off the clock. Clinging to a 3-2 lead, Bertin nearly sealed the deal with a late takedown, but the Illini junior was able to neutralize his attack. Then, with only seconds remaining, Tirapelle nearly reversed Bertin for two points and the win, but time ran out before he could establish superior position.
“We knew all along that (the match at) 157 (pounds) was going to be critical for us to win the match,” Johnson said. “That was a great college wrestling match between those two, and I expect a couple more down the road.”
For the most part, the result of every other match followed the script of national rankings. Co-captain Ryan Churella dominated Illinois’s Donny Reynolds 17-1 for a technical fall at 165 pounds. A pin would have won the match, but Churella had to settle for a technical fall and five team points, which gave Michigan a 14-10 lead.
“From what I hear, everybody thought it was a pin, but they didn’t call it,” Churella said. “You can’t let the referee decide the match.”
Illinois quickly tied the match at 14, with a major decision at 174 pounds before unranked Willie Breyer nearly pulled off an upset that would, again, have won the meet for the Wolverines.
Trailing by two points after an early takedown by Illinois’s No. 7 Tyrone Byrd, Breyer earned an escape in the second period and turned around the match by riding Byrd for the remainder of the second period. Breyer quickly escaped again in the third to tie the match at two apiece, but Byrd managed a two-point takedown with only seven seconds remaining to win the match. The victory put the Illini up 17-14, with only the heavyweight match left to go.
“That was disappointing because I really wanted Willy to pull that one off — obviously we win as a team, but just because it was a great effort on his part,” Michigan coach McFarland said. “He wrestled his heart out.”
McFarland and the crowd hoped that Wagner could earn bonus points in the final match and secure victory, but Benhke successfully wrestled a defensive match to insure the tie.
“We would have been a lot happier getting a win,” Churella said. “Coming into the match we thought we were capable of beating Illinois, so coming away with a tie is not exactly what you want after that match. I know we could have scored a couple of extra points in some matches — like in my match. I felt could have pinned that kid, and that would have made the difference.”
The Illini opened the match with consecutive victories at 125 and 133 pounds to jump out to a 7-0 lead. Sophomores Josh Churella and Eric Tannenbaum responded with victories at 141 and 149 pounds, respectively, as Michigan strung together four straight wins.
“I felt we were in a position to get a win today and put ourselves in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten season,” McFarland said. “It was a great match, but it’s unfortunate that it had to end in a tie. Both teams wrestled hard today and it’s just too bad there wasn’t a winner.”