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Rutgers looks to end 2-match losing streak in bout against Illinois

The Rutgers wrestling team will look to end a two-match losing streak when Illinois arrives at Piscataway for a Friday evening dual at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC). 

The No. 25 Scarlet Knights (8-5, 3-4) will hit the road to Lawrenceville, New Jersey, for a non-conference matchup against Rider on Sunday night. 

A win over the Fighting Illini (7-3, 4-2) would improve Rutgers' Big Ten record to 4-4, a .500 winning percentage. The Knights have not been in the win column since downing Indiana 29-7 back on Jan. 24. 

Since then, Rutgers has lost to Michigan and Purdue. In those two meets, the Knights held a narrow one-point lead going into their final bouts. 

Starting at 149 pounds against the No. 14 Boilermakers (11-4, 4-3) on Jan. 26, Rutgers had a 18-17 lead after No. 10 true freshman 133-pounder Sammy Alvarez shutout Travis Ford-Melton. 

With true freshman 141-pounder JoJo Aragona wrestling Parker Filius in the winner-take-all deciding bout, the momentum was slightly on the Knights' side. That all changed in extra time, with Filius capturing a 4-2 victory at the RAC, spoiling Rutgers' potential upset. 

Six days later, wrestling at Madison Square Garden for the first time since Nov. 27, 2016, the Knights found themselves in a similar situation, this time up 16-15. In this meet, Rutgers earned five victories against the No. 23 Wolverines (6-3, 5-1).

This time, it was up to sophomore heavyweight Alex Esposito to muscle out a win at the first half of the Big Ten Super Saturday doubleheader. Going up against the consensus No. 2 wrestler in the nation, Michigan's Mason Parris, Esposito was unable to pick up a victory, as he was pinned 1:16 into the bout.

With that being said, there were some improvements made throughout head coach Scott Goodale's lineup, particularly with the upperweight classes. 

Fifth-year senior 184-pounder Willie Scott was bumped down a weight when junior 174-pounder Joseph Grello suffered a lower-body injury at Penn State on Jan. 19. Scott worked a 13-2 major decision over the Wolverines' Max Maylor at the Garden.

The win was Scott's first conference victory of the season. He had lost his only other conference matchup to Jacob Covaciu of the Hoosiers (1-8, 1-7) on Jan. 24. 

Illinois recently defeated Northwestern 19-18, courtesy of five individual wins, including two major decisions and a technical fall. Justin Cardani started off the meet at 125 pounds with a 4-2 victory. Then, No. 7 Travis Piotrowski, a NCAA qualifier last March, worked a 21-3 technical fall.

Piotrowski is 19-2 on the season and brings in an unblemished 10-0 record in dual meets. With Alvarez and Piotrowski wrestling at 133 pounds, this could potentially be a marquee bout to watch.

In his first season donning the scarlet singlet, Alvarez has previously gone up against five wrestlers ranked inside the top 10. Alvarez's last win against a ranked opponent came in the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, Tennessee, back on Jan. 2. He defeated North Dakota State's Cam Sykora, the then ninth-ranked wrestler in the 133-pound weight class, 5-4. 

With that win over Sykora, Alvarez was crowned the Southern Scuffle champion of his weight class. 

The Fighting Illini's No. 13 184-pounder Zac Braunagel wrestled a 13-2 major decision in his bout and will face No. 12 redshirt freshman 184-pounder Billy Janzer. Janzer defeated Michigan's No. 17 Jelani Embree for his 17th win of the season. 

Janzer was previously ranked No. 23 by FloWrestling. With a win over Embree, who was 17th in the country, Janzer bumped up 11 spots to his current standing, earning a top-15 national ranking for the first time in his career.

After alumnus Nicholas Gravina, who qualified for the NCAA Championships between 2016 and 2019, graduated last May, the 184-pound starting spot was left vacated. While Gravina started at the weight class in his final season, Janzer shined as a redshirt, compiling a 15-4 record.

Janzer's experience does not go unnoticed, though. He was selected as the program's redshirt of the year during the 2018-19 campaign, where he took first place at the Patriots Open back on Dec. 9, 2018. 

Junior 157-pounder Michael VanBrill will look to snap a two-match losing streak when he takes the mat this weekend. VanBrill was at 141 pounds last season, while his brother, alumnus John VanBrill, anchored the Knights at the 157-pound spot.

The younger Michael VanBrill has a 16-12 record this season and can go for his 17th and 18th victories of the season this weekend. 

For updates on the Rutgers wrestling team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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