Harrowing weekend in Virginia brings out elite character in Mizzou wrestling

Leeth, Miklus embody toughness as Tigers show they’re still among the best in collegiate wrestling.
Missouri Tigers wrestler Willie Miklus gets his arm raised after securing seventh place Saturday, March 21, 2015, at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Maneater File Photo

Amidst fireworks surrounding the triumphant return of 197-pound redshirt senior Willie Miklus at Mizzou wrestling’s season opener against Illinois, Grant Leeth humbly took care of business in his first match. While media swarmed Miklus after the dual, Leeth stood patiently by.

When it was his turn to talk, two years of building excitement effervescently flowed out of him like a delighted child.

“That was my first match in two years and eight months, so it was awesome being out there again,” he said. “I’ve pictured this moment for years now, and just getting to finally have my chance is unreal. I forgot what it felt like, just competing and fighting and … ugh, I loved it.”

Indeed, Leeth had been sidelined two straight seasons with recurring knee problems after transferring to Mizzou from Duke. Making his Tiger Style debut at Mizzou Softball Stadium as a redshirt junior — while onlookers’ attention was on his teammate’s similar return from injury — may not have been how he envisioned it, but it certainly didn’t deter him in his first match.

Leeth upset the nation’s 19th-ranked 149-pounder Eric Barone 6-2 in a critical match that helped Mizzou to a 20-17 victory over No. 12 Illinois that day, and his energy and perseverance prior to and since then has embodied that of his team in the young 2017-18 season.

Mizzou, now 6-0 on the season, is entering its (primarily) conference slate ranked fourth in the country and widely projected to repeat as MAC champions for a sixth straight year. An early-season consensus national title contender, the team has not come about its first six triumphs with complete ease. Though half of the Tigers’ victories all came on the same day in shutouts over Truman State, Missouri Valley and Central Missouri, the other three have taken an intense will to win.

That will was put to the test most notably this past weekend; on a road trip to Virginia, head coach Brian Smith’s squad had to face 10th-ranked Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia on back-to-back days.

Competing against one of their toughest opponents of the year on the first day and wrestling worn down and fatigued on the second, the Tigers got two of their biggests boosts from — who else — Leeth and Miklus.

Again pegged as a heavy underdog against Virginia Tech’s No. 5 Solomon Chishko, Leeth continued to tire that conception with an 8-2 shocker that bolstered Mizzou’s lead. Later, with the Hokies down 16-9 and trying to build on a budding rally in the dual’s penultimate match, their star 197-pounder Jared Haught, undefeated and ranked second in the country at 197, jumped to a 7-1 lead on Miklus.

With the looming threat of a potential major decision to cut the Tiger lead to three, Miklus provided Mizzou a season-defining moment of resilience with a stunning pin with under 20 seconds to go in the match. A 9- or 10-point swing, it clinched the dual in dramatic fashion (the eventual final was 22-12).

Mizzou showed again the next day that it is nothing if not resilient. On less than 24 hours of rest against an upset-hungry Virginia team, the Tigers fell behind 9-0 three matches in. Leeth saved the day again; wrestling against another ranked opponent, he landed a tie-breaking takedown with 15 seconds left in a gritty match to win 3-1 and turn the tide, getting his team on the board. It would win 18-15 on a winner-take-all heavyweight decision from Austin Myers, another unlikely hero.

Mizzou, seemingly fighting on fumes at critical points on two straight days, passed the flying pillars every time. It could have easily lost both duals; instead, it won both. This team escaped home to Columbia on its last breath with a still perfect record and renewed energy, having a brutal road stand under its belt that could very well come to be season-defining. The group simply refused to lose.

At the heart of that tenacity to win is Leeth and Miklus, competitors whose circumstances mirror each other’s in more ways than one. Both have recovered from knee surgeries that caused them to miss last season. Both are filling holes at weight classes previously filled by recent national champions for Mizzou. And both have stepped into leadership roles this year as weathered upperclassmen.

“I do a little bit more talking to guys on the side,” Miklus said before the season when asked about that changing role. Not a fan of yelling or singling out people, Miklus has provided a calm voice of guiding reason to his younger teammates.

Among those premiere role players also are stars such as redshirt juniors Daniel Lewis and John Erneste, redshirt senior Joey Lavallee and redshirt sophomore Jaydin Eierman. All four are undefeated on the season so far and ranked in the nation’s top 10 at their respective weight classes. Lewis was recently awarded MAC Wrestler of the Week.

There’s no question that the talent and the depth are there for Mizzou. What it needed was a test of intangibles.

It got just that last weekend. What was on display during those duals wasn’t always pristine wrestling, but it was championship character, something many worried might be absent this season from a team without J’den Cox in its lineup.

“I really love it when people don’t like us,” Miklus said before the season. “That’s a fun venue for me, anytime we’re hated.”

Competing with that attitude and toughness in back-to-back hostile road environments, Mizzou’s wrestlers sent a clear message to the country last weekend: They can do more than contend with the best — they still are one of the best.

Edited by Eli Lederman | elederman@themaneater.com

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