By SETH SCHWARTZ
With 20 seconds left and the match tied at four, there was a feeling Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez and Penn State’s Jason Nolf were headed to overtime, Saturday night at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
Illini assistant Mark Perry knew better.
“I saw Isaiah look at the clock with 15 seconds left and I knew he was going,” said Perry. “He went, and he got it! He had to dig deep down. Pound-for-pound, Isaiah is the strongest wrestler I’ve ever seen, it’s not even remotely close.”
The takedown with ten seconds left gave Martinez a 6-5 decision and his second consecutive NCAA title at 157 pounds.
The few times Martinez gets in trouble, it’s only momentary. No position is too tough for him to handle.
Nolf, a redshirt freshman, got a takedown in the first period, but Martinez countered with a single-leg takedown as it ended tied at three. Martinez chose down in the middle frame and got an escape; Nolf did the same in the third.
“First, that duck, it works better when guys are chasing me and they’re tired,” he said. “He was really coming after me, elbows open, elbows open. I pulled on one side and went to that side I pulled on; he fell right down on his face and I just covered him. It’s kind of harder to get at the beginning of the match. It’s more of a duck, step and lift. But as the match progresses, the guy gets a little more worn out. It’s a duck, guy falls on his face and I just cover.”
“The way he was driving into me, I just felt it. I think my coaches saw this, when it got to about 30 seconds to go, I was towards the out-of-bounds line and I really started picking my hands up, digging inside, pulling, pulling and digging. As the clock started ticking down, he was reaching because I was slapping his hands down real hard.
“I just felt it right away, pulled it and ducked. Thank God I got my head through the hold and got enough to get the takedown.
“I was confident that if we went to overtime I was ready. My lungs felt good, my body felt good.”
Nolf pinned Martinez at 4:56 in a dual at the end of January snapping his 61 match win streak. Martinez won in overtime for the Big Ten title and was named Outstanding Wrestler for the second consecutive season.
It’s been challenging for Martinez aside from wrestling. His stepfather, Alfred Garcia, passed away in September.
“Isaiah’s will got him through this season. His training wasn’t remotely close to last year,” said Perry. “He dealt with a number of things besides his stepfather passing away. It took a special person to overcome what he had to deal with this year.”
In the semifinal, Martinez scrambled out of potentially dangerous positions. He secured an ankle pick 20 seconds into overtime for a 7-5 against No. 4 seed Ian Miller of Kent State.
At the beginning of the first period, Miller locked up an inside trip and put Martinez to his back.
“Miller is the best at the inside trip,” said Perry. “When I saw Ian get in position, I said, ‘Here it comes! Boom he hit it.’ Isaiah likes to play with fire.”
Head coach Jim Heffernan understands the arduous road to repeating takes a rare mental makeup.
“It’s a lot easier to get to the top than it is to repeat,” said Heffernan, a four-time All-American and three-time finalist who took first his senior year at Iowa, in 1986. “I am sure Nolf and Isaiah came to practice every day thinking about each other.
“With what Isaiah had to go through during the course of the year I was concerned. There were some frustrating times. Kids can look for answers in different ways. But Isaiah is a mature kid and made good decisions.”
Pitching in for the Illini to place ninth was No. 3 Zane Richards who took fourth at 133 and Steven Rodrigues fifth at 165.
In the semifinal against Iowa’s Cory Clark, Richards was in control, but gave up a takedown at the edge of the mat with nine seconds left to lose 4-3. He rebounded beating Penn State’s Jordan Conway 3-2 and lost to Oklahoma’s Cody Brewer 9-4.
“Finishing in the top four here isn’t bad,” said Richards. “It’s not where I want to be, I need to work on my consistency and training. I need to make huge gains to be ready for next year.”
Rodrigues, a senior from Mount Kisco, New York, ended on a high note after two previous trips to Nationals.
“I was so happy to see Steven end his career as an All-American,” said Heffernan. “He’s worked extremely hard and has a commitment level like very few guys I’ve seen. He’s sacrificed a lot for our program and placing at the national tournament is a great reward and fitting way for him to end his career at Illinois.”
In Manhattan, you never know what you might encounter…off the mat. Stepping onto the train Thursday morning, March 19, Heffernan, Perry and assistants Jeremy Hunter and Wynn Michalak, Martinez, Richards, Zac Brunson, Brooks Black and Jeff Koepke were making the brief journey from their hotel to Madison Square Garden. The wrestlers were all dressed in orange warmups.
A middle aged women asked Heffernan in jest, “Are you here to protest the St. Patrick’s Day Parade?”