Mizzou wrestlers hoping for another successful season
Brian Smith has been the head wrestling coach at the University of Missouri since 1998-99 and has never seen anything like it.
Last season, after his squad captured its eighth consecutive MAC Tournament championship – the Tigers also won the tourney title in their final season as a Big 12 squad back in 2011-12 – the sports world shut down due to the coronavirus. That meant no NCAA Tournament.
"It was awful, especially for the guys who saw their careers come to an end," Smith recalled. "And even now, it's still crazy. In the last two weeks, our schedule has changed daily; in fact, it changed three times today.
"On the positive side, the NCAA has announced that everybody gets a free year this year. We won't start until after the first of the year and I'm hopeful we can at least get in some wrestling then. But at this point, who knows?"
The Tigers finished 12-7 overall and 8-0 to win the MAC regular-season title a year ago. They qualified NCAA wrestlers in eight of 10 weight classes.
Last weekend, they opened the new season by taking 13 wrestlers to the UWW National Championships in Omaha. Junior Brock Mauller captured a championship at 65kg in the U23 Freestyle division while the Tigers won the Junior Freestyle team title, getting championships from freshmen Josh Edmond at 65 kg and Keegan O'Toole at 70 kg. Other top finishers for Mizzou in the younger division were Rocky Elam (second, 92kg) and three fifth-place finishers – Colton Hawks (86 kg), Sean Harman (79 kg) and Trey Crawford (61 kg).
"We really had a great showing and it really pumped up our guys," said Smith, noting that his recruiting class from last year was rated No. 2 in the nation. "We'd been together, training and getting a lot of good work in since Sept. 9. The guys are working hard, preparing as best they can. Right now, it's a new world and it's important that everybody stays prepared.
"On that trip, we took three vans, just to make sure we weren't all in the same vehicle. We're testing and making sure that nobody practices until they get their test results. And we're cleaning all the time, trying to make sure we're as prepared as possible."
Smith continued: "Even if you're not starting today, you had better make sure you're prepared because if somebody else tests positive, you might find yourself bumped up into that spot in the lineup the next time we're wrestling."
Ranked 15th by Win Magazine to open the season, Missouri sports a lineup that is young, talented and deep. Smith noted that this year's MAC Tournament has been moved up a week, just to make sure everyone has a chance to be ready for the NCAAs.
This year's NCAA Championship are scheduled for March 18-20 at Enterprise Center in St. Louis.
Following is a quick rundown of the Mizzou lineup:
125 pounds: Junior Dack Punke, an NCAA qualifier in 2019, returns, as does junior Cameron Valdiviez, who started much of last year. Connor Brown, a redshirt junior from Oak Grove, is a former NCAA qualifier who wrestled previously at South Dakota State and Wisconsin. He could also wrestle at 133. Also looking good is sophomore Noah Surtin, who starred at Edwardsville High.
"We're loaded and at some point, I'm going to have to make a tough choice," Smith said.
133: Matt Schmitt, a two-time NCAA qualifier while at West Virginia, steps in and should be a force for the Tigers.
141: Allen Hart, a junior who qualified for the NCAAs last year, is back and looks solid. But he's being challenged by Edmond, a talented freshman from Detroit.
149: Mauller, a two-time NCAA All-American, returns for his junior season. He placed sixth as a freshman and was awarded national All-American honors again last year, when he finished the season at 28-1.
157: Like Mauller, junior Jarrett Jacques is another Columbia-area standout looking to earn his third consecutive trip to nationals. He's being challenged by O'Toole, a top-level freshman who wrestled for ex-Mizzou standout Ben Askren in Wisconsin.
"He's special," Smith said of O'Toole, who was rated as the nation's No. 2 recruit by FloWrestling.
165: Peyton Mocco, a redshirt sophomore, is a returning NCAA qualifier who has also trained under Askren. He may also need to fend off the challenge of O'Toole.
174: While redshirting, Sean Harman went 20-1 a year ago at Mizzou. He's a former two-time Oregon prep champion.
184: A redshirt sophomore from Columbia, Jeremiah Kent has looked as tough as anyone on the Mizzou squad in workouts this season.
197: An NCAA qualifier last year, redshirt senior Wyatt Koelling is being challenged by another gifted freshman, Staley High School graduate Rocky Elam.
Heavyweight: The older brother of Rocky, Zach Elam qualified for the NCAAs as a true freshman in 2019 and took a redshirt year last season to train for the Olympics.
"I'm excited about this team and hope they can have a season," Smith said. "It's a talented lineup and most of these guys have at least three years left with us. It's going to be fun for them, for the coaching staff and for our fans."