This year’s Missouri wrestling team can be defined in one word: experienced. The team returns nine wrestlers who qualified for last year’s NCAA championship and senior heavyweight Dom Bradley, who returns to the team after taking an Olympic redshirt last year. Bradley enters the season ranked as the No. 2 heavyweight in the country.
Expectations have been heightened after the team was ranked seventh in the preseason rankings Oct. 25. The high ranking affects people outside of the program more than on the inside, coach Brian Smith said.
“It isn't as important in our room as it is for our fans because people just get excited for the season to see a ranking out,” Smith said.
The ranking was nice, but the team's overall goal is to get better, Smith said.
“That's not where we want to be, so for us seventh just means we have work to do,” he said.
The team surprised many when it won the 2012 Big 12 Wrestling Championship last year but left the season disappointed when it failed to qualify an All-American for the first time since 2001. The Tigers finished 23rd as a team, finishing outside the top 20 for the first time in more than a decade.
Last year was a learning experience, but the team is ready to get back on the mat and improve, junior 125-pounder Alan Waters said.
“It's definitely upsetting, and it makes us want to come back this year and get that win and redeem ourselves,” he said. “At the same time, we can grow off of it and look at our mistakes and learn from them.”
Smith said he recognizes the experience he has. He said he is even more pleased with his team’s competitive nature.
“The difference between the good and the great is the good ones love to compete,” he said. “Whether it's checkers or the classroom, they love to compete, and that's what separates this team.”
To go along with the nine returning NCAA qualifiers, Bradley returns after taking the 2011-12 season off to attempt to qualify for the Olympics. Bradley was an All-American in 2011 and has high aspirations for this season to win the national championship.
“My goal and part of the reason why I took the redshirt was to get some more experience and be a part of a national championship team,” Bradley said.
Along with other sports programs at Missouri, wrestling has made a conference switch of its own. Since the Southeastern Conference does not offer wrestling, the team has joined the Mid-American Conference.
The move came close to the start of the season, so the Tigers will only compete as a member of the MAC in their conference tournament this March in Buffalo, N.Y. Starting next year, the team will compete in the MAC as a full-time member.
Missouri is joining the MAC with fellow new members Northern Iowa and Old Dominion. The team will take on ODU on Saturday as part of a meet hosted by Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind.
Smith said the conference conversion won’t affect his team from a competitive standpoint. He said it will open up more recruiting in the northeast region of the country, a spot well-known for good wrestlers.
At the team’s first media day of the season, members of the program were asked if they would be competing to be the best Missouri squad ever. Smith didn’t refute the notion.
“This team has the potential to do great things,” he said. “And we've had great teams here, but this team has the potential to do as much and even more.”