Mizzou wrestling braves the cold and tops Illinois 20-17

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

Inside the third base dugout, Mizzou wrestlers warmed up for their season-opening dual. The gold and black puffs atop their beanies bounced along as some practiced moves on imaginary opponents. Fans in matside seats on the infield sat under blankets.

Competing in 55-degree weather, the No. 5 Tigers took to Mizzou Softball Stadium to open their season against the No. 12 Fighting Illini of Illinois. Jaydin Eierman shined with a major decision, Grant Leeth and Willie Miklus won matches in their respective returns and Mizzou held on 20-17 to open their 2017-18 campaign with a signature win.

“The atmosphere was really cool,” Tigers head coach Brian Smith said. “The matside people are crazy; I’ve got like 200 assistant coaches. Like I thought, it was gonna be a close dual. I can go through every match and tell you we have to improve in every way, but it’s also November. I think our kids competed at a good level.”

Mizzou earned the victory despite falling behind 3-0 after the 125-pound opener. Redshirt senior Barlow McGhee lost in sudden-death overtime to Illinois sophomore Travis Piotrowski on an escape.

“[McGhee] was definitely the guy shooting in the match,” Smith said. “He got to the legs a couple times. He’s got to finish it.”

Mizzou evened things out with help from a 5-4 decision from redshirt junior John Erneste, who protected a one-point lead through a harrowing final 20 seconds.

Eierman, a redshirt sophomore, followed with a tide-turning thriller over Illini redshirt freshman Mike Carr. The fourth-ranked wrestler in the country at 141 pounds had trainers tending to him on the mat after getting bruised up. That wasn’t going to be enough to slow him down.

“We bumped heads pretty hard,” Eierman said as a small cut on his forehead shined red, “and I lost my balance for a little bit, but it’s all good.”

Eierman pulled out an unorthodox move to pin Carr in the third, to the chagrin of the Illini coaching staff. The officials reviewed and overturned the fall. Carr earned a point on it instead for an illegal hold. The black and gold sideline became the enraged one.

Eierman laughed it off. He still led 17-11.

“I thought I had it to where it was still legal, but the ref didn't see it,” Eierman said on the overturned pin.

Moments later, a momentous takedown with four seconds left, aided by a riding time point, catapulted Eierman to a 20-11 win and a major decision that earned Mizzou an extra point.

“[Eierman] will throw the kitchen sink,” Smith said. “At times he needs to learn to just get some easy points.”

Leeth and Joey Lavallee added decisions. Leeth’s was a big one; he has dealt with knee injuries for the last two years and upset the country’s No. 19 at 149, Eric Barone.

“Being outside was freaking awesome,” Leeth said. “It felt like the fans were right on top of the mat. It was awesome being out there again. I’m ready to roll from here.”

Meanwhile, Illinois was waiting on its star, holding hope on the shoulders of redshirt senior Isaiah Martinez. Ranked No. 2 in the nation at 165, he delivered, humbling Mizzou’s promising redshirt sophomore Connor Flynn in his Tiger Style debut. Three straight effortless takedowns bolstered a technical fall that cut Mizzou’s lead in half to 13-8.

Redshirt junior Daniel Lewis answered emphatically with a major decision. Redshirt freshman Canten Marriott fell at the 184, an unresolved position for Mizzou still.

But it was redshirt senior Willie Miklus who saved the day for Mizzou in his return after missing last season with a knee surgery. He led 2-1 going into the third period. Allowing just one takedown would bring Illinois within three team points. He held strong and smart in the final seconds though for a 3-1, dual-icing triumph.

“I wanted to pin him,” Miklus said. “I wanted to get bonus points, but a win’s a win, so I’ll take it. I felt a little nervous, but it felt pretty good to be back.”

Illinois earned a pin at heavyweight, but six team points weren’t enough to catch up in the final match on a chilly day in Columbia.

“I got cold,” Smith laughed. He joked on Thursday he would be needing a hat for warmth, but didn’t don it until the middle of the dual. “I went in the locker room and it was warm, and then I came out and was like, ‘I’m gonna get really cold.’”

Other elements to the outdoor event were noted by the wrestlers as well.

“Warming up in the dugout was kind of weird,” Leeth laughed.

“I didn’t get pooped on, so that’s good,” Miklus added, in reference to his comments on Thursday about his only concern with wrestling outside: “What if a bird poops on me?”

He won’t have to worry about that anymore; Mizzou will be back inside for its next meet, taking on Central Missouri, Truman State and Missouri Valley at Hearnes Center on Nov. 12.

Edited by Eli Lederman | elederman@themaneater.com

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