At the 1997 Big 12 Championships, Missouri finished 72 points behind champion Oklahoma State. The next three seasons Mizzou was last in the powerful five-team league by an average of 73 points. At the 1999 league meet, the Tigers totaled 6 points.
Oh how times have changed.
In 2012, in their final year of competing in the Big 12, Missouri won the conference title. The last two years the Tigers have been kings of the Mid-American Conference. The rise up collegiate wrestling’s ladder continued last weekend as Missouri took down formerly unbeaten Iowa inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena to claim a NWCA National Duals trophy.
“It’s another thing we’ve won now -- we had won everything but the NCAAs and the National Duals,” Mizzou head coach Brian Smith said following last Sunday’s 18-12 win against the Hawkeyes. “We’ve won the Midlands and the Southern Scuffle and Big 12s and the MAC. Now we can say we’ve won the National Duals, and now we can move on to the MAC tournament at home and the NCAAs in St. Louis.”
Missouri finishes the dual season 24-0 and with a veteran squad ready to challenge the program’s best NCAA finish of third in 2007. Alan Waters and Drake Houdeshelt were rookies on the 2012 Big 12 champion group, and along with 2014 NCAA champion J’Den Cox, Mizzou knew 2015 could be a special season.
“Our team is so close, we’ve grown up together,” said Waters, who beat reigning NCAA champion Jesse Delgado of Illinois on Saturday and formidable Thomas Gilman of Iowa on Sunday. “A lot of us are from Missouri and have been around each other for a long time. This has been building.”
Five of MU’s starters call Missouri home, including Cox, a Columbia product
“Missouri is a good wrestling state … it has been,” said Smith, a 1990 Michigan State graduate who came to Columbia in 1998. “Getting those in-state kids to stay home is big for us. And this group, they’ve been around each other and talked about winning championships.”
Waters, ranked No. 1 at 125 pounds, and Cox, No. 1 at 197 pounds, are a combined 56-0 this season. Houdeshelt, No. 2 at 149 pounds, has just one loss in 25 starts. John Eblen, another Missourian, is ranked fourth at 174 pounds.
Missouri was 14th at the 2014 NCAA Championships. Smith and his group will look to complete their climb March 19-21 in St. Louis.
Whose turn is it?
The 174-pound weight class saw two seniors meet on the big stage in 2014 -- Oklahoma State’s Chris Perry and Oklahoma’s Andrew Howe. The battle for No. 1 this March will again most likely feature a handful of upperclassmen. Entering the postseason, six of the top seven at the weight are seniors led by Nebraska’s Robert Kokesh (30-0), among the top four at the past two NCAA meets. Joining Kokesh is Penn State’s Matt Brown (21-2), a finalist two seasons ago; Iowa’s Mike Evans (23-1), a two-time All-American; Minnesota’s Logan Storley (24-3), a three-time All-American; Pittsburgh’s Tyler Wilps (13-3); and Missouri’s John Eblen (21-3).
None of those contenders are subtle in their approach. All are physical, grinding, in-your-face athletes who go hard for seven minutes. Flash is replaced by their toughness. Seeds for the NCAA Championships will be determined by a Big Ten meet that features Kokesh, Brown, Evans, Storley, Illinois’ ninth-ranked Zac Brunson and Ohio State’s No. 14 Mark Martin.
Two of the top 149-pounders in the country, Ohio State’s Hunter Stieber and Oklahoma State’s Josh Kindig, did not compete on the final weekend of the regular season. Both started the 2014-15 campaign at the top of the rankings. Stieber, a junior, was 36-1 two seasons ago and finished third at the NCAA Championships.
Stieber took a redshirt last season and is just 1-2 in 2014-15. Kindig, an NCAA runner-up last March, has battled numerous injuries late in his senior season and throughout his career. He has wrestled 14 matches in 2014-15 and did not compete in duals against North Carolina and North Carolina State last weekend.
Kindig will most likely earn an at-large berth into the 2015 field; Stieber, if he wrestles, will have to qualify at the rugged Big Ten Championships.
Two of the nation’s top 157-pounders, Virginia Tech’s Nick Brascetta and Kent State’s Ian Miller, have a combined 21 matches this season. Two-time NCAA champion Jesse Delgado has missed much of his final season at Illinois. The 125-pounder takes a 6-1 record into the Big Tens.
• Army beat Navy for the first time since the 1996-97 season last Sunday, earning a 21-10 victory in West Point, New York. The win broke a 14-match win streak for the Midshipmen against the Black Knights; Navy still owns a 48-6-5 all-time advantage.
• North Carolina State heavyweight Nick Gwiazdowski enters the postseason with 21 bonus-point victories in 28 wins. That includes 13 pins. Entering last Sunday’s with fourth-ranked Austin Marsden of Oklahoma State, the 2014 NCAA champion had pinned 6-straight opponents.
“It was good to face someone you’ll see later in the NCAA Tournament,” said Gwiazdowski, who beat Marsden, 4-1, to move his win streak to 48. “All the top [285-pounders] are different, so any chance during the season you get to see them helps with preparing later on.”
• The Division III postseason gets underway this weekend with Regionals hosted by Augsburg in Minneapolis; Wabash in Crawfordsville, Indiana; Loras in Dubuque, Iowa; Messiah in Grantham, Pennsylvannia; Ferrum in Roanoke, Virginia; and Roger Williams in Bristol, Rhode Island. The top three finishers at each weight class (180 total) qualify for the NCAA Division III Championships March 13-14 in Hershey, Pennsylvannia.
• The Division II Championships are set for Maryville in St. Louis March 13-14. Four Regionals this weekend qualify four wrestlers per weight class (160 total). Hosts are Colorado State-Pueblo, Minnesota-Mankato, UNC-Pembroke, and West Liberty in West Virginia.
• Division I opens its postseason this Sunday when Oregon State hosts the Pac-12 Championships in Corvallis. The 19th-ranked Beavers have won three consecutive league titles and are the only Pac-12 team ranked in the final regular season USA Today/NWCA Coaches Poll.
• For the first time since 2007 West Virginia beat rival Pittsburgh in a dual meet. The Mountaineers started 0-4 under first-year coach Sammie Henson and finish 9-9 with last Sunday’s 24-14 win against the 18th-ranked Panthers.