ST. LOUIS – J’den Cox blew a kiss toward the Missouri fans after pinning an opponent Thursday. Jaydin Eierman flexed his muscles for the crowd following one of his victories.
The Missouri wrestling team had plenty to celebrate on the first day of the NCAA Championships in front of a vibrant crowd of 18,157 at the Scottrade Center.
Missouri’s top five wrestlers – Cox, Eierman, Lavion Mayes, Joey Lavallee and Blue Springs High School graduate Daniel Lewis – each went 2-0 to advance to the quarterfinals.
“The team is sitting in a great spot,” Cox said. “Guys are wrestling with passion, with fire, with heart. They want it, and they’re going out to get it. They’re not holding anything back.”
A few Big Ten powers, plus Oklahoma State, entered the national tournament as favorites to claim the team trophies – top-four finishers earn hardware – but the Tigers have positioned themselves to perhaps wreck the party.
Missouri is in fifth place with 20 points. Penn State leads with 30.5 points, followed by Ohio State (26), Oklahoma State (25.5) and Iowa (24.5).
“I really like where it’s going,” Eierman said. “A lot of people didn’t pick us in the top four, but we’re going to hang in there, and we’re going to do it. It’s going to be a big surprise, but not to us.”
Lewis, seeded sixth at 165 pounds, didn’t surrender a point in his two victories. He compiled a remarkable 6 minutes, 51 seconds of riding time in an 8-0 first-round win over South Dakota State’s Luke Zilverberg.
Eierman, who is seeded eighth at 141 pounds, looked sharp in his national tournament debut. The redshirt freshman used a pair of four-point near falls to earn a first-round major decision, beating Army’s Logan Everett 15-3.
In the second round, he defeated Nebraska’s ninth-seeded Colton McCrystal 9-6. Eierman led 6-3 before McCrystal tied it in the third period with an escape that he quickly turned into a takedown. McCrystal conceded the escape to Eierman with about 20 seconds remaining. Ahead by a point, Eierman tacked on a takedown in the closing seconds.
“I wanted one more takedown to prove that it wasn’t a fluke or that I got lucky, so I went out there and got it done,” Eierman said.
Eierman will face Oklahoma State’s No. 1 Dean Heil in the quarterfinals. Heil beat Eierman 8-6 on Jan. 27.
Cox (25-0), a senior No. 1 seed at 197 pounds, was as dominant as ever as he began his quest to become the first Missouri athlete ever to win three national titles. He used a first-period pin to move past American’s Jeric Kasunic before beating Navy’s Steban Cervantes 12-3.
Afterward, the affable Cox seemed as relaxed as ever.
“I couldn’t ask for a better effort from the team, and I couldn’t ask for a better team to be here performing with,” said Cox, a Hickman graduate. “It’s just fun. It’s been a lot of fun. I’m enjoying it.”
Cox is looking to join Ben Askren as the only wrestlers in program history to be a four-time All-American.
Missouri went 11-5 on the first day of the three-day tournament.
Heavyweight Austin Myers and 125-pounder Barlow McGhee each lost a pair of matches and were eliminated, and 133-pounder John Erneste split his bouts. He’s still alive in the back draw.
The Tigers earned bonus points with three pins and three major decisions.
Two pins were supplied by third-seeded 157-pounder Joey Lavallee. He needed just 87 seconds to drive the Citadel’s Aaron Walker onto his back in the first round. His second-round bout against Virginia Tech’s Sal Mastriani went into overtime tied at 1. Lavallee won in sudden victory with a takedown that he rolled into a pin.
“Keeping composed” was key, Lavallee said. “I’ve been a lot of overtime matches. I’ve lost overtime matches through my career. I’ve won overtime matches. I realized that the biggest difference is just keeping composed.”
Mayes, seeded third at 149 pounds, also endured some suspense in reaching the quarterfinals. He defeated Northern Illinois’ Steve Bleise 2-1 in an overtime tiebreaker. Bleise couldn’t escape during Mayes’ turn on top in the tiebreaker. Bleise then conceded an escape point to Mayes and couldn’t secure the takedown he needed.
“Today wasn’t my best day, but the good thing about the national tournament is that there’s three days,” said Mayes, a senior seeking his third All-American finish.
The Tigers are chasing their third trophy finish in program history. They placed third in 2007 and fourth in 2015.
Penn State and Oklahoma State advanced seven wrestlers into the quarterfinals, and Iowa has six. Ohio State and Virginia Tech matched Missouri with five.
“We’re still battling, and that’s the fun part of it,” MU Coach Brian Smith said. “We’re quietly sneaking in there, but I knew we could.”