The University of Illinois wrestling program will have a case of double vision for four years.
Twin brothers and defending state champions Zac and Danny Braunagel, of the Althoff Crusaders, have given verbal commitments to the Illini.
Zac earned the Class 1A state title at 170 pounds last season, winning 46 of 47 matches. Danny checked in as the 152-pound winner and finished 47-0. Both capped their championship seasons at State Farm Center in Champaign, their future home.
“We went up Friday morning and took a tour around campus, visited some academic advisers, visited with the coaches and watched a few practices,” Zac Braunagel said. “Everything just felt like home.”
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It wasn’t until later in the day, however, that the Braunagels, who live in O’Fallon, learned how much Illinois, coached by Jim Heffernan, wanted them in its program.
“My dad (Joe) went to dinner with Coach Heffernan,” Zac said. “They started talking finances. It hit my dad by surprise. Coach said, ‘Well, Joe, we’re going to pay for everything. We’re really interested in the twins coming here and we think they’ll be a great fit for our program.’
“They offered us a full scholarship. They’ll pay for everything. That was the (key). But that’s where we wanted to go the whole time.”
The Braunagels also considered Old Dominion, Purdue, Campbell University in North Carolina and Michigan State. They took official NCAA-paid visits to Old Dominion, Purdue and Illinois. They canceled trips to Campbell and Michigan State, which had been scheduled for the next two weekends.
Both boys will major in mechanical engineering.
Danny Braunagel said it’s a relief for both he and his brother to have made the decision.
“Just walking around campus on our official visit and meeting with the guys on the team — we knew a lot of them ... It just felt like home,” he said of visiting Champaign. “It felt like the right place, right decision. We’re both going to be able to compete on the team, be able to push each other and compete with the best guys in the country.”
Both wrestlers said Illinois’ addition of Mike Poeta to its coaching staff was a selling point. Poeta, an Illinois graduate, has been the owner and head coach of the Poeta Training Center in suburban Chicago and has worked with both Braunagels.
There never was any doubt the two would wrestle together.
“We told (coaches) we were a package deal,” Zac Braunagel said. “We wanted to go to the same college together because we had never done anything separate from one another. We still share a room. (Danny) has been my practice partner since I was 3 feet tall. I don’t think much will change.”
Danny Braunagel, however, said the level of competition at the Division I level will change dramatically. Fitness, quickness and strength will be needed in spades.
“I think the toughest part of it will be transitioning into the hand-fighting,” he said. “In high school, you can get away with not as much hand-fighting. You can use a lot of outside motion and diving in on shots. In college, that stuff won’t work. You need more setups, more angles.”
Althoff, coached by Josh Harper, will be a contender for the Class 1A team championship this season, which begins in late November. Zac Braunagel might compete in the 182-pound division, while Danny will compete at160 pounds.
The Crusaders also return 126-pound state champion Chase Bittle.
“I wrestled 170 and 182 last year,” Zac said. “Obviously, I wrestled 170 at state. It’s really about helping out the team. It’s about trying to win the team title for our coach. It’s our last year. It would be a great way to go out.”
Danny Braunagel said the goal for his final season is “to go out and have fun and enjoy what I’m doing.”
David Wilhelm: @DavidMWilhelm