COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Despite the loss of a three-time national champion in J'den Cox and a three-time All-American in Lavion Mayes, Brian Smith's Mizzou wrestling squad hasn't missed a beat.
The 18-0 Tigers head into Saturday's dual meet against Northern Iowa, which will be the regular-season finale, with a young team that has multiple wrestlers primed for deep runs in the Mid-American Conference and NCAA tournaments. The Tigers defeated SIU-Edwardsville 30-9 on Wednesday and are currently ranked No. 3 in the USA Today/NWCA Coaches poll.
"When I start going through who we wrestled it's a pretty tough season," Smith said. "It's not like it was an easy season. But we definitely had some people step up. I knew they could, but I wasn't sure if they would."
Some of the team's most consistent performers have come from surprising places. Cox's graduation left a spot open at the 197-pound weight class, which has been filled by Willie Miklus, who missed last season because of a torn meniscus.
Miklus is currently ranked No. 7 for his weight class in the NCAA coaches poll, which was last released on Feb. 4, and scored a huge win in the team's dual-meet win over Oklahoma State on Jan. 27. Miklus beat Preston Weigel, who came into the match ranked No. 3 in their weight class.
The win showed Smith that Miklus had returned to full form.
"I knew at some point during this year he was going to struggle, and he really struggled this year early on in the beginning," Smith said. "He just looked slow, not confident, which is the mental part of coming off an injury."
Smith has had Cox, who is now a volunteer assistant coach, wrestling against Miklus in practice.
Missouri has also gotten match points from redshirt freshman Canten Marriott, who won the 184-pound spot after Smith went into the preseason unsure of who would start there.
Marriott is another Tiger primed for a deep run in March as he's No. 16 in the coaches poll for his weight class but should get a bump up with a strong performance at the conference championships. Smith thinks Marriott will be a top-16 seed for the NCAA Tournament, which starts on March 15 in Cleveland.
"He wrestles within himself," Smith said of Marriott. "He has a gameplan and he goes out and he's going to pull on your head. ... It's a simple game plan, but he's already got 20-something wins and he's doing something special."
Perhaps Missouri's best chance at an individual national champion is in the 149-pound class with redshirt junior Grant Leeth. A Kearney native, Leeth has overcome multiple injuries to be ranked No. 3 in his weight class nationally. Smith said he didn't know what to expect from Leeth going into the season but knew if he got some early wins and built up his confidence he could have a big year.
Now considered a leader on the team, Leeth thinks the win over Oklahoma State couldn't have come at a better time with the postseason right around the corner.
"Anytime you can beat Oklahoma State it's a huge deal," Leeth said. "I think they've had 10 losses in the last 20-something seasons and Mizzou is like three of them. We took out a big dog like them and we're pretty young. Now we know we can compete with anyone on any given day."
Smith said that the team still has its fair share of problems to fix before the postseason, with the top issue being heavyweight. Missouri has started three different wrestlers in the weight class throughout the season. Smith said it's between Wyatt Koelling and Jake Bohlken.
Neither wrestler has won a match in conference play, and Saturday's finale against Northern Iowa could sway either's chance at competing in the MAC Championships.
"We have to figure it out," Smith said. "That's my job but they're so close."
This article is written by Alex Schiffer from The Kansas City Star and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.