Column: Undefeated Missouri wrestling team deserves more attention

The 15-0 team won the MAC Regular Season Dual Championship last Friday and has a deep, talented lineup.

The scene at Mizzou Softball Stadium as Missouri wrestling battled Illinois in its season opener on Nov. 4, 2017.

Why don’t more people care about Missouri wrestling?

Here’s the simple answer: not enough people know about it.

Before being assigned to cover wrestling, I couldn’t tell you how many weight classes there are in collegiate wrestling, or how impressive the Missouri wrestling team is. So, if you’re a wrestling amateur, here are some fast facts:

   
Number of weight classes in a collegiate wrestling match 10
Missouri wrestling’s record this season 15-0
Daniel Lewis’ record this season 23-0

I love football games just as much as any other student, but if Mizzou fans gave half the attention they gave to the 7-6 football team to the undefeated wrestling team, Hearnes Center would be much fuller than its average attendance of 656 people this season.

Disclaimer: yes, wrestling is not a traditional American pastime like football or baseball. The uniforms are different than the pads, helmets and jerseys that sports fans are used to, and it is a much more individual-based sport than most.

But when you look past the lack of bells and whistles — an individual match is only two athletes on a mat, nothing else — there is something strategic and fundamentally competitive about wrestling that deserves more attention than it gets. Especially when the Mizzou wrestling team is the focus of that attention.

Last Friday, the team beat Central Michigan to win the Mid-American Conference Regular Season Dual Championship. Before the match, Central Michigan was the only other undefeated team in the MAC; Mizzou won 29-6 after individual victories in eight of the 10 matches.

Head coach Brian Smith said winning the dual title had been a team goal this season. The team won it in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.

“Most coaches wouldn’t do it, but I reminded the team of the feeling last year after we didn’t win the dual title, how much of a letdown that was and how much it hurt,” Smith said in a press release from the team. “We didn’t want that to happen again.”

No one likes getting an 89 percent in a class when you believe you deserve an A, just like no team wants to come so close to winning a title and then lose. Smith may have had doubts that other coaches would remind their teams of a bad memory, but he knows what he’s doing. This is his 20th year at Mizzou, and with a 263-93-3 record and five straight MAC championships in five years of being in the MAC, it’s clear that Smith does not fit into the Most Coaches category.

Separate from the coaching, several veteran wrestlers have had impressive individual seasons. The team’s top six wrestlers — redshirt sophomore Jaydin Eierman; redshirt juniors John Erneste, Grant Leeth and Daniel Lewis; and redshirt seniors Joey Lavallee and Willie Miklus — have combined for a 113-8 record.

Lewis is undefeated at 23-0. He won the 2016 and 2017 MAC championships for the 165-pound weight class. After a season of wrestling in the 174-pound weight class, it seems like a similar performance could be in order when the Tigers head to Mount Pleasant, Michigan, in March for the MAC Championships.

The main struggle for the team has been in the heavyweight category. The four Missouri heavyweight wrestlers this season have combined for a 33-34 record. But when only one weight class presents a problem, and nine other weight classes perform with incredible results, one weak spot in the lineup does not seem to be an Achilles’ heel for the team.

In Smith’s time here, since the 1998-99 season, the team has only gone undefeated one other time, in 2014-15. The MAC Championships are in the beginning of March — aka, when the new semester feel has worn off and spring break still seems too far away. For these reasons, pay (more) attention to the Missouri wrestling team.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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