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Down a weight, looking great: Sophomore Mike Poeta of Illinois is unbeaten and ranked No. 1 at 157

Mike Poeta was kneeling down near the back of the Ford Center, trying to cope with one of the most crushing defeats of his life.

Poeta had fallen just one win short of becoming a 165-pound All-American during the 2006 NCAA Championships in Oklahoma City.

As Poeta knelt down after the stinging setback, University of Illinois assistant coach Carl Perry walked over and offered the words Poeta now lives by.

"Remember how it feels."

Poeta remembers. And he hasn't lost since. The Illinois sophomore has moved down a weight class this year and is ranked No. 1 nationally at 157 pounds. He is a perfect 15-0 this season.

"That loss from nationals is always on my mind - it's a big motivator for me," Poeta said. "It reminded me that I didn't get what I worked all year for. That stuck with me all summer. Remember how it feels, I have that posted in my locker and in my folders. I use it as motivation for every practice and everything I do."

Among Poeta's wins this season was a 9-8 win over then-No. 1 Trent Paulson of Iowa State in the finals of the Midlands Championships. Paulson is a two-time All-American. The explosive Poeta shot in for a pair of early takedowns on Paulson before the ISU senior came on strong late in the match. Poeta was named Outstanding Wrestler of the Midlands.

"It was a match where I got my hand raised, but I had my head down," Poeta said. "I have really stressed that I need to wrestle hard for seven minutes, but I didn't do that in that match. I had an 8-4 lead going into the third period and I shut down my offense. He was coming at me and wrestling hard. I relaxed and gave him an opportunity to come back."

More recently, Poeta beat No. 7 Brandon Becker of Indiana 7-3 in a Jan. 21 dual meet. Becker is a two-time All-American.

"That was a big match for me," Poeta said. "He's a real tough kid. It was kind of a stepping stone for where I want to be."

Illinois coach Mark Johnson said Poeta is "the total package."

"Mike's very mature and very coachable," Johnson said. "He's a great athlete and a hard worker. He has great speed and technically he is very good. He's always asking questions and always looking for ways to improve. I can't say enough good things about him. He's one of those kids you want good things to happen to."

The athletic Poeta, a Junior Nationals champion in freestyle, was rated the No. 1 recruit in the country at his weight class by InterMat after he won a pair of Illinois state titles for Highland Park High School. Poeta, from Highwood, Ill., also was a High School Folkstyle National Champion and a two-time member of the ASICS National First Team.

The 20-year-old Poeta has another big test coming up Feb. 4 when he meets reigning Big Ten champion and third-ranked C.P. Schlatter of Minnesota. Schlatter beat Poeta in the finals of the Junior Nationals the last time they met.

"C.P. beat me 5-4 in the finals at Fargo when I was a junior (in high school) and he was a senior," Poeta said. "It will be a good test for me and I'm going out there to win. It will be a minor achievement if I beat him because my ultimate goal is to win a national championship."

Poeta competed up a weight class at 165 during his freshman season in 2005-06 with senior two-time All-American Alex Tirapelle competing at 157 for the Fighting Illini. Despite being undersized, Poeta turned in a strong season. He finished with a 27-7 record at 165 and placed third at the Big Ten Championships.

At the NCAA Championships, Poeta was unseeded and lost 3-1 to No. 8 Travis Paulson of Iowa State in the second round. Poeta rebounded to win back-to-back wrestlebacks before he met Daniel Thompson of The Citadel in the match to become an All-American.

"I was in on a double on the kid and was taking him down," Poeta said. "He lateral dropped me and I was down 5-0. I was on my back for a minute and a half. I came back and tied it 6-6, but I ended up losing 7-6. I wrestled my best five and a half minutes of the year after I fought off my back. I gave it everything I had and went for broke. I just ran out of time."

Poeta didn't pout about having to compete at 165 last year.

"I didn't put my head down," he said. "The coaches made the right decision with Alex and me. I wanted a national title last year at 165 and I thought I could do it. Things didn't work out that way, but I didn't take a backseat to anybody last year."

Said Johnson: "Nobody likes to wrestle out of their weight class, but Mike was a class kid how he handled it."

Poeta also is a top prospect in freestyle. He said he may compete at the University Nationals this year.

"I'm hoping they change the (international) weights again," Poeta said. "I'm kind of caught in between the weights they have now (145.5 lbs. and 163). I'm too big for one weight class and a little small for the other one. I'm not really set up for either weight right now."

Poeta, a community health major, said coming to Champaign to wrestle collegiately was the right move.

"I love Illinois," he said. "I couldn't imagine a better, more well-rounded coaching staff than we have. We're a real close-knit team and do a lot of activities together. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

Poeta is determined to walk away with a different feeling to remember from the 2007 NCAA Championships on March 15-17 at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich.

"I'm ranked No. 1 right now, but that doesn't mean anything to me," Poeta said. "My only goal is to be a national champion. That's all I'm focused on and that's all that matters to me."
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