‘Next guy up’ mentality fuels Missouri wrestling past Cox era to perfect season

The Tigers qualified nine wrestlers to compete at this month’s NCAA championships in Cleveland.
Dack Punke (right), freshman, wrestles with Barlow McGhee, senior, in a wrestling practice at the Student Center on Thursday Oct 19.

This was going to be the year without J’den Cox.

There was no avoiding it, no running from it. A few months removed from the Olympic medalist’s last rodeo at Missouri, head coach Brian Smith could only help his Missouri wrestling team shake that narrative by preaching the same trait as usual.

He knew he was preaching to the choir.

“Like coach says: consistency,” senior Joey Lavallee said. “Coach Smith preaches to us being consistent at stuff … doing the same thing over and over again. We just know we’ve gotta be consistent.”

It seems to have worked. In a season that was supposed to be defined by struggle in Cox’s absence, Missouri has responded far more consistently with its reputation for success than thought to be possible. The result?

19-0, and now, a seventh straight Mid-American Conference championship.

That zero in the losses column especially jumps off the page. It’s something the Tigers achieved only once during the Cox era.

“What was going to be the identity of this team?” Smith recalled himself and the wrestlers thinking at the beginning of the season regarding Cox’s absence. “There was an identity thing.”

So how did this happen?

“You see the next guys up,” Smith said as the trace of a smile emerged. “I think with this program, they look up at those walls and see what’s happened over the years, and they want to be the next guy. That’s the way they train. I think that’s what’s happening now with the culture of our program.”

This season’s team has been an entire roster of next guys up. Take Jaydin Eierman, a promising redshirt sophomore who has risen to the occasion at a spot early in the lineup. He went 16-0 in duals at the 141-pound weight class and is one of Missouri’s seven individual MAC champions. Not bad for the “New J’den.”

“Jaydin is an anomaly,” redshirt junior Grant Leeth said. “There’s no one in the country who can give you that feel except him. He’s a freaking beast. That dude pins people out of nowhere. I could turn my back and his match is over and I’m up.”

After Eierman, Leeth is indeed the next guy up, and he’s been another one of Smith’s next guys up all season. At 149 pounds, he’s also dual-unbeaten, a 16-0 MAC champ. A few months ago, he didn’t think that was even a possibility.

“I probably shouldn't admit that,” he joked, but he has good reason to be surprised. This season was three years in the making, the junior’s first as an able competitor after being redshirted then injured twice.

“At a tournament last summer, I got my butt kicked,” Leeth said. “And I was like, oh man, this is going to be a long season.”

Instead, he has far exceeded expectations against one of the toughest individual schedules in the country. Next guy up?

That would be Lavallee, a 157-pound redshirt senior whose dominance last year was eclipsed by Cox’s latest national championship. Lavallee was the national runner-up at his own weight class, a heartbreak he’s more than ready to bury in his final season.

“My younger self, I’d get very angry,” he said. “Someone pokes my eye, I’d want to go rip their head off. Now, I just laugh it off. Just brush it off, keep wrestling, keep doing what I do best.”

Part of that mentality, he said, is just about lightheartedness and even joking around with teammates right before a match.

“We all have our own rituals,” Lavallee said. “[Mine is] listening to gospel music right before my matches. It helps me keep loose.”

It’s worked more miracles for him this year, as he heads into the NCAA championships a MAC title winner already, with a 17-0 dual record. Between Eierman, Leeth and Lavallee, those three consecutive weight classes — 141, 149 and 157 — have produced a combined 49-0 record for Missouri this season.

“That’s a pretty mean 3-4-5 guy punch,” Leeth said.

And it’s not even the team’s only source of dominance. Redshirt junior Daniel Lewis had to endure being bumped up a weight class from 165 to 174 ahead of the season and is now one of four wrestlers in the Missouri lineup to have finished the regular season undefeated. He’s now a back-to-back MAC champion as well.

“I know it’s going to set my national tournament up nicely,” Lewis said. “It’s going to put me in probably a higher seed than I’ve seen before, which is important for getting the right matchups to make it all the way through.”

And how about Willie Miklus? Another redshirt senior leader, he faced the tallest task of anyone for Missouri: filling Cox’s weight class.

“He was holding my weight,” Miklus said. “I’m not taking over his weight.”

Those next men up have kept Missouri unbeaten and brought the team a record seven individual conference titles. But that’s never been the light at the end of the tunnel for any of them.

“I've been watching the national tournament since I was like 8 or 9 years old,” Leeth said. “Sat out the past three years watching it. Now that I know I’m finally going to get that chance, I just cannot stop thinking about it. I have dreams about it.”

After 125-pounder Barlow McGhee and 184-pound Canten Marriott, both considered to be on the bubble, were narrowly granted at-large bids to the NCAA championships on Monday, the Tigers are sending wrestlers at nine of the 10 weight classes to Cleveland. For the No. 3 team in the country, aspirations of a first-ever team national championship have never seemed more real.

“I’ve got thousands of notes,” Smith said. “We’re going to have these guys ready for each round of each tournament. You gotta go through five rounds; that’s just battling. If you focus just on what your guys can do, then you can have a lot of success.”

That national tournament, set for March 15-17 in Cleveland, is all that’s on most of the Tigers’ minds.

“It’s like Christmas; it’s a great time of year,” Miklus said.

Lewis said, “We shine at the end because we smell blood.”

But no one embodies that hunger to finally reach the promised land of collegiate wrestling than the man who’s been at the top for 20 years, a man who doesn’t even keep his seven MAC title rings out to see, electing to keep them in a bag under his sink instead.

“After [Smith] won a few of those, the focus shifted,” Lewis said. “He wants the bigger thing, the better thing. When we get a national ring, I don’t think it’ll end up underneath his sink.”

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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