It’s been an up-and-down season for the Missouri wrestling team, but on Thursday and Friday at the NCAA Wrestling National Championships in St. Louis, the Tigers showed the potential that earned them a No. 5 ranking at the beginning of the season.
Coming off the team’s sixth consecutive conference championship in the Mid-American Conference Championships on March 5, No. 10 Missouri entered the national championships with eight wrestlers who qualified for the national championships. Three of them placed in Saturday’s finals, the first time in school history that the team has multiple finalists in the same year.
Senior 197-pounder J’den Cox, redshirt junior 157-pounder Joey Lavallee and redshirt senior 149-pounder Lavion Mayes will all wrestle in Saturday’s championship matches.
Missouri is seeking its third straight top-10 finish and fourth in five years, and sits in fourth place overall entering the championship’s final day. Here’s how the team performed on day one and two of this year’s championships.
Day 1 — Thursday:
At the end of the first day, Missouri was in fifth place with 20 team points and five of eight wrestlers advancing to the quarterfinal rounds. The five wrestlers who advanced to the quarterfinals were Cox, Lavallee, Mayes, redshirt freshman 141-pounder Jaydin Eierman and redshirt sophomore 165-pounder Daniel Lewis.
Cox, the No. 1 wrestler in his weight class, asserted his dominance against Navy’s Steban Cervantes. For Cox, this was his 30th career major decision win, and he advanced to the quarterfinals with a 12-3 victory.
In the 157-pounder match, Lavallee faced Virginia Tech’s Sal Mastriani for the second time this season. Lavallee, who previously wrestled Mastriani in November 2016 and earned a 15-5 major decision victory, defeated Mastriani again. This time, Lavallee won by fall, allowing him to advance to the quarterfinals.
Eierman and Lewis both handled their opponents. Eierman held on to defeat Nebraska’s Colton McCrystal 9-6, while Lewis shut out Northern Iowa’s Bryce Steiert 6-0.
Mayes’ match against Northern Illinois’ Steve Bleise was the closest out of all the Mizzou matches in session two. Mayes was able to hold off Bleise in sudden death overtime, officially winning TB-1 over Bleise to set himself up well for Friday.
Day 2 — Friday:
Friday began with Mayes, Cox and Lavallee each picking up early morning victories to advance to the semifinals, with Cox scoring a 10-1 major decision victory in the process.
Mizzou’s other two wrestlers, Eierman and Lewis, were defeated in the quarterfinals. Eierman lost to No. 1 seed Dean Heil of Oklahoma State in a 6-5 match that was decided by less than one minute of riding time. Lewis was also defeated 6-5 by Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph, who earned a birth to the 165-pounder finals later in the night. Despite the losses, both wrestlers responded with two wins, each later that night, to advance to Saturday’s consolation semifinals.
The Friday night session began with Eierman’s most dominant performance of the season. The redshirt freshman scored an 8-0 major decision victory over No. 3 Joey McKenna of Stanford in the consolation “round of 12” 141-pounder match, earning his first career All-American honors.
After the match was over, Eierman composed himself and shook his opponent’s hand before leaping into coach Brian Smith’s arms with a huge smile on his face.
Smith said the moment meant a lot to him as a coach.
“I’ve known him since he was a young kid,” Smith said. “He’s a local Columbia kid. To see a kid out there like him and J’den Cox stepping up in front of the home crowd, it’s fun.”
The Tigers got another remarkable performance from redshirt senior Lavion Mayes in the 149-pounder semifinal match. Mayes scored a highlight reel takedown just as time expired, defeating Max Thomsen of Northern Iowa 4-2.
This is Mayes’ third straight All-American honors and his first trip to an NCAA final of his career. Mayes will take on No. 1 seed Zain Retherford of Penn State in the championship.
Lewis followed Mayes’ victory by steamrolling Minnesota’s Nick Wanzek 14-4 and shutting out Cornell’s Brandon Womack 10-0 to earn a birth in the consolation semifinals alongside Eierman.
Lavallee narrowly defeated Dylan Palacio of Cornell 8-5 in the 157-pound semifinal, scoring a takedown in the final second to pick up the victory and earn a spot in his first career NCAA final match.
“Once I got [to the end of the match], I knew I had short time to go and try to get that takedown as quick as possible,” Lavallee said. “But I also knew [I needed to make sure] I was being technical and not letting him be able to come over the top and grab my ankles.”
The closer for Mizzou was two-time national champion J’den Cox. In a tightly contested match, Cox defeated Virginia Tech’s Jared Haught 6-2. Cox, going for his third straight national championship, will face Brett Pfarr of Minnesota in the title match. Cox previously defeated Pfarr 6-4 in the Southern Scuffle on Jan. 2.
The wrestling session on Saturday begins at 10 a.m with the wrestleback brackets and 7 p.m for the championship matches.
Edited by Eli Lederman | firstname.lastname@example.org