Missouri wrestling finds another place on campus to wrestle

After practicing at the Student Center and competing at Jesse Hall last season, the Tigers discovered a new spot on Saturday: Mizzou Softball Stadium.
Fans watch matside as Missouri Wrestling takes on Illinois at Mizzou Softball Stadium on Saturday Nov. 4.

Where the pitcher’s rubber is usually planted in the compact dirt infield, there was a large mat with a Missouri Tigers logo. Where there are usually softball fans, there were 1,810 Tiger Style wrestling fans.

The No. 5-ranked Missouri wrestling team began its season with its first outdoor wrestling match in team history on Saturday. Mizzou Softball Stadium, which opened in March, hosted the team’s dual against No. 12 Illinois.

“I felt like the fans were right on top of the mat, and you could just feel — well, for me, personally — I could feel, like, the electricity,” redshirt junior Grant Leeth said.

Due to injury, the 149-pounder had not competed since his 2014-15 freshman season at Duke. Leeth won his match against No. 17-ranked Illinois redshirt sophomore Eric Barone in the Tigers’ 20-17 win.

“Warming up in the dugout was kinda weird, like, not typical for a wrestler, but it was super cool,” Leeth said. “I loved every minute of it.”

Jay Luksis, senior associate athletic director, said the team had been talking about doing an outdoor match since the schedule came out on Sept. 12.

“We prayed for no rain, for warm weather, and we’ll take a cloudy day in the 50s and 60s in November,” Luksis said.

The home opener attendance surpassed every home match last year but one, the Jan. 27 match against Oklahoma State, which saw 2,509 fans. Attendance reached 1,000 people in six out of the seven home matches last year but reached over 1,500 only twice.

“The atmosphere was really cool,” head coach Brian Smith said. “The fans came out, and I think they really enjoyed it.”

Fans who attended Missouri football’s rout of Florida tailgated after the game and then came to the wrestling match, Luksis said.

“Having them be able to come over and support the wrestling team and kinda give them exposure to our wrestling program … I think it’s a great opportunity for them and spreads the word about Mizzou wrestling,” Luksis said.

He also said the softball field would not be affected by the mats used for the dual.

On Friday, the day before the home opener, the softball team challenged the wrestling team to a kickball game in Hearnes Center. For Smith, this was another opportunity to let his team have fun.

“They’re kids; I think sometimes we forget about that,” Smith said. “These are student-athletes, and they should still have fun. I want them to look back on their experience and say, ‘Wow, man, that was awesome. I loved wrestling for Mizzou.’”

The wrestling team won after a competitive game.

“My office is right below where the wrestling room is, so I can hear when there’s stuff going on upstairs,” Luksis said of the kickball game. “And you heard a whole bunch of ruckus and stuff going on up there, so I walked up and just watched ’em. It’s just great camaraderie between teams supporting each other. All in good fun.”

Smith also said the softball team came to the match at the stadium.

“Day before, not many coaches would let their team play kickball with other teams, and we played for an hour with the softball team, having fun,” Smith said.

The team will host duals against Truman State, Missouri Valley College and Central Missouri on Nov. 12 — this time, at the Hearnes Center as usual.

After a preseason practice in the MU Student Center and the outdoor dual, Luksis said he doesn’t envision any additional events planned beyond the typical regular season activities.

“But you never know,” Luksis said. “I may come in on Monday, and coach Smith may have a new idea, and I’m all for it.”

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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