ST. LOUIS – J’den Cox is bringing company to the party this year.
Cox, the Missouri wrestling team’s 197-pounder, advanced to the national title bout for the third time in four years on Friday at the NCAA Championships at the Scottrade Center.
This time, 149-pounder Lavion Mayes and 157-pounder Joey Lavallee will join him in the finals.
“It’s kind of like that ‘High School Musical’ ” song, Cox said, referencing the Disney Channel movie. “'We’re all in this together.' Let’s do it.”
The Tigers had never previously produced multiple national finalists in the same year.
“To get three, at home here in Missouri, it’s fun,” Coach Brian Smith said.
Cox was the last Tiger to win his semifinal.
After his victory, he turned to the Missouri fans in the crowd of 18,344 and held up three fingers on each hand. He said later it signified Missouri’s three finalists and not his bid to capture a third championship.
“We’re making history,” Cox said.
Mayes and Lavallee will look to join Max Askren, Drake Houdashelt, Mark Ellis and two-time champions Ben Askren and Cox on the program’s list of national champions.
Saturday night’s finals are an ESPN-televised event complete with walk-out music, smoke machines and mat-side seating.
Cox relishes the big stage. Mayes and Lavallee will get their first taste.
Missouri is fourth in the team standings with 81.5 points. If it stays in the top four, it would earn its third trophy finish in program history. The Tigers placed third in 2007 and fourth in 2015.
Penn State, seeking its sixth title in the past seven years, leads with 121 points. Ohio State is second (89.5), and Oklahoma State is third (86).
Mayes (23-2) will face Penn State’s top-seeded Zain Retherford (27-0) in the finals, and Lavallee (29-1) will get the Nittany Lions’ No. 1 Jason Nolf (26-0).
Jaydin Eierman, seeded eighth at 141 pounds, and sixth-seeded 165-pounder Daniel Lewis, a Blue Springs High School graduate, joined the finalist trio in securing All-American status. Those two will determine their placing Saturday morning. They can finish as high as third and no worse than sixth.
Lewis nearly joined Cox, Mayes and Lavalllee in the semifinals. He led 4-2 entering the final period of his quarterfinal match against Penn State’s No. 3 Vincenzo Joseph. Joseph snatched a 6-5 victory with a pair of takedowns, including the decisive one with 12 seconds remaining.
Lewis rattled off a pair of major decisions in wrestlebacks to earn his All-American status.
MU’s middleweight duo used some drama to advance to the finals.
Mayes was tied at 2 with Northern Iowa’s No. 7 Alex Thomsen until securing a takedown in the closing seconds to win 4-2. He improved to 3-1 against Thomsen this season.
Mayes is no stranger to close matches. His 4-2 quarterfinal win over Virginia Tech’s No. 6 Solomon Chishko also came courtesy of a third-period takedown. His last three wins have come by a combined five points.
Mayes said that with a minute remaining against Thomsen, he contemplated whether he wanted to take the match to overtime or try to win it in regulation.
“I chose to shoot,” Mayes said. “He blocked it off pretty well, and then I was able to hit a drag that I’ve been kind of working on all week.”
Lavallee trailed Cornell’s No. 7 Dylan Palacio 4-2 entering the final period. Lavallee scored a takedown, but Palacio escaped to maintain a one-point lead. Then, late in the match, Lavalllee got another takedown and turned Palacio for a two-point near fall.
Lavallee celebrated by leaping into the stands to hug his father, Joe.
“He’s a big role model, a big influence,” said Joey Lavallee, who defeated Stanford’s Paul Fox 6-2 earlier in the day. “He’s the first one that got me into wrestling.”
Cox (27-0), an Olympic bronze medalist last summer, is one win away from becoming the first MU athlete to win three national titles in any sport. He joined Ben Askren as the only wrestlers in program history with four All-American finishes.
Cox defeated Virginia Tech’s No. 4 Jared Haught 6-2 in the semifinals after a 10-1 quarterfinal win over Rider’s No. 8 Ryan Wolfe.
Cox hasn’t allowed a takedown in four tournament bouts. He’ll face Minnesota’s No. 2 Brett Pfarr in the finals. Cox beat him 6-4 in January.
Missouri arrived in St. Louis with eight qualifiers. Five remain in the tournament after the team went 7-0 in Friday night’s so-called blood round.
The five All-Americans tie MU’s single-season record set in 2009 and matched in 2015.
Eierman lost 6-5 in his quarterfinal match against Oklahoma State’s No. 1 Dean Heil. Eierman tied the match at 5 with a takedown in the closing seconds, but the decisive point went to Heil due to his 1 minute, 13 seconds of riding time.
Eierman bounced back with a major decision and a decision in the back draw.
John Erneste went 1-1 in 133-pound wrestlebacks on Friday morning and was eliminated, ending his tournament at 2-2.