Freshmen propel young wrestling team

Three true freshmen have started this season.

Freshman 157-pounder Joey Lavallee nervously stepped on the mat for the first time. He turned on music and tried not to think.

He was hundreds of miles away at Central Michigan University on Jan. 18, facing a ranked opponent, No. 20 Lucas Smith. Lavallee wasn’t able to take down Smith, and he lost 4-0.

After the indefinite suspension of senior Kyle Bradley, coach Brian Smith opted to remove Lavallee’s redshirt for the CMU dual.

“It would be nice to finish the redshirt year, but I feel ready to compete,” Lavallee said. “It feels great to compete for the team.”

Lavalle is one of five freshmen headlining the wrestling card for No. 9 Missouri, a team that saw six seniors depart last season. That senior class led the team to two consecutive conference championships.

Smith reloaded his squad with the No. 2 recruiting class in the country this year.

So far, the freshmen and many first-time starters have risen to the occasion.

“We are ranked seventh in the country with six freshmen,” Smith said. “Something is going on right.”

Led by fifth-ranked 197-pounder J’den Cox, four wrestlers are ranked in the top 30 and have helped the Tigers to five dual wins.

“It’s fun,” Cox said. “What’s there not to love? I enjoy the team, the coaches and the time I spend in the room.”

Smith described this group of freshmen as hard-working individuals who want to be successful. They have proved that hard work pays off, earning starting spots at the 125, 133, 141, 157 and 197 weight classes.

“We are hard-working and shoot for the same things as individuals,” Cox said. “We strive individually, but when you do that, the team has no choice but to get better because when one man goes hard, the other man has to step up just as much. We do that very well here.”

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the young team.

On the first road trip to North Dakota, Smith said one of the freshmen forgot his bag so he arrived without any gear to wrestle with.

Smith did not have the similar hiccups with last year’s group, a team that had been together for three years. It’s getting better, Smith said, as the team gets more comfortable.

The Tigers will head to Oklahoma on Jan. 30 for their eighth voyage of the season.

Smith said the coaches have had to adjust when working with the young team. He and the rest of the coaching staff have had to teach the newest Tigers how to eat and to remind them to grab both a right and left shoe for duals.

For the young team, Smith continues to emphasize confidence.

Lavallee, the newest true freshman to join the ranks of starters, gained an extra confidence boost at Northern Iowa and Northern Illinois over the weekend. He won both of his matches.

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