Missouri wrestling wins conference title, qualifies seven for NCAAs

Two wrestlers will come home with individual titles as well.
Sophomore Cody Johnston wrestles Eastern Michigan's Phillip Joseph on Feb. 8, 2014 at Hearnes Center. Missouri beat Eastern Michigan 18-15.

Junior Drake Houdashelt and freshman J’den Cox did what they have done all season — win.

After two days of wrestling in the Mid-American Conference championships, Houdashelt and Cox finished on top of the podium in their respective weight classes. Their effort also pushed the No. 9 Missouri Tigers ahead of the No. 5 Northern Iowa Panthers in the team race to win their third conference title in as many years.

“It was fun,” coach Brian Smith said in a video posted on Facebook. “It was truly a team effort. I’m very proud of this team.”

Cox was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Wrestler after posting three bonus-point victories, including a 10-1 major decision win over Ohio’s Phil Wellington to win the title. The announcers tabbed Cox as one of the wrestlers to beat in Oklahoma City for the NCAA tournament.

For Houdashelt, his win helped to shift momentum for the Tigers. Northern Iowa opened the championship round by winning the first three weights. Houdashelt’s win kicked off a rally that would last for the rest of the tournament.

It was the third consecutive individual title for the top-ranked wrestler. As the team leader in bonus-point victories, Houdashelt needed overtime to secure the win over Old Dominion’s Alex Richardson.

Yet, Cox and Houdashelt could not win the team title on their own. After the first day, all ten Missouri wrestlers remained alive in their brackets, the only team to accomplish such a feat.

Cox and Houdashelt came into the tournament as favorites for individual titles, but the Tigers faced a formidable opponent in Northern Iowa to win the team competition.

The Panthers finished with five wrestlers in the finals and had four on top of the podium at the end of the day. Despite their success, they fell short of Missouri by 2.5 points, 118 to 116.5.

“I honestly thought we were out of the team race after the first few weight classes,” Smith said. “We started to focus on getting guys to qualify for NCAAs, and we really thought it was over. But they never stopped battling.”

Bonus-point victories from freshman Joey Lavallee, junior Mikey England and sophomore Cody Johnston closed the eight-point gap from day one. Senior Zach Toal also accumulated two bonus-point wins on his way to third place.

Northern Iowa and Missouri never faced off directly on the match, but came close at 184 pounds. The Tigers were down two points with Johnston battling Ohio’s Ryan Garringer for fifth place and Northern Iowa’s Ryan Loder vying for first place. A win by Johnston and a Loder loss would have tied the two teams.

Johnston did more than just win. He found out he would wrestle in place of junior Johnny Eblen on Wednesday and made the most of his opportunity at the MACs. Johnston won by technical fall, 18-2, and Loder lost in overtime. The change in events put the Tigers ahead of Northern Iowa.

Trailing the entire tournament, Cox’s win clinched the team victory.

All ten Tigers finished in the top six of the weight classes with seven earning bids to the NCAAs. Missouri will wait until Wednesday for the wild-card announcement to see if it qualifies all ten wrestlers.

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