Road to Nationals not easy for Waters, teammates

Johnny Eblen has had three surgeries while at Missouri.
Missouri Tigers senior wrestler Devin Mellon celebrates after winning his dual Sunday, March 8, 2015, at the Mid-American Conference Championships hosted at Hearnes Center in Columbia, Mo.

You don’t want to know what angry Alan Waters is like.

According to Missouri sophomore wrestler J’den Cox, his teammate turns red. It makes it even scarier that he has green eyes.

Waters broke his foot before the beginning of last season after falling out of a tree and lost half a year of wrestling. He took a medical redshirt.

During his time rehabilitating, Cox, who is known as the most relaxed wrestler on the team, said Waters had trouble controlling his temper, frequently getting frustrated.

He said the two of them went to IHOP a few weeks back and he realized something.

“We were hanging out, just chilling, and he’s really cool to hang out with," Cox said. "I didn’t know that. I was kind of scared, to be honest with you. But I enjoyed myself.”

Now back and better than ever, Waters is the No. 1-ranked wrestler in the 125-pound weight class with a 30-0 record on the season.

The transition from redshirt to one of the team’s frontmen wasn’t easy, however.

“It was real hard to get back into the groove of wrestling,” he said. “At first, I lost a couple of matches that I could never see myself losing and it really just crushed me. I was upset about it and getting frustrated, trying to figure out what I was doing it wrong.”

But despite having trouble with both his health and his self-assurance, Waters was able to get back on track for his final season.

Heading into the biggest tournament of the year, and arguably of his career, this week, Waters is on a mission to snag his first-ever national championship.

“I kind of used (the injury) to improve on some areas, and I think it’s kind of improved me in the long run,” he said. “Once we started this season, I just got my confidence back and just started building from there.”

Senior Johnny Eblen has a few things in common with Waters.

Not only did they go to the same high school, both faced some difficulties with injuries during their collegiate careers.

Eblen has endured more pain than Waters.

Suffering a spiral fracture in his fibula and tearing multiple ligaments in his ankle prior to freshman year, Eblen was redshirted.

The following season, he tore his meniscus in his left knee, missing a year of eligibility.

Everything was set for Eblen to truly begin his career as a Tiger in 2012, but that year, he was beaten out by then-senior Mike Larson in the 184-pound weight class.

After Larson’s graduation, Eblen seemed assured a spot as a starter. Then, right before his junior year, he suffered a dislocated right shoulder.

Waters emphasized Eblen’s grit.

“He’s always been tough,” he said. “And him coming out this year and showing it and (getting) the four-seed at Nationals, that’s awesome.”

Missouri coach Brian Smith explained that there’s no need for Eblen to think about his previous injuries.

“You can’t look at what happened in the past,” he said. “This is his opportunity, and he’s making the most of it. He’s made a lot of sacrifices for the program.”

The Park Hill High School pair are far from the only wrestlers who have had a rough road to this year’s national tournament.

Heavyweight senior Devin Mellon wasn’t eligible at the beginning of the year due to grades. But his troubles went beyond that.

“It’s a challenge, but we knew at the end of the summer that this is the way it’s going to be,” Smith said. “(Mellon’s) dealt with a lot of adversity. He’s had adversity in his personal life, with his mother having cancer, and it hasn’t been easy. So I know he just stays focused, and he’s enjoying his teammates. It’s his last year and he’s enjoying what’s going on, and I’ve really seen his confidence go off the charts.”

Mellon took home the conference trophy in his weight class earlier this month, beating Northern Iowa’s Blaize Cabell — a grappler who had beaten him twice earlier this year — snapping his 15-match win streak.

The newfound success was no coincidence.

“I came here, I had a mission,” Mellon said after his match. “It’s my senior year and I had a sense of urgency. I was just really mentally focused.”

Confidence seems to be a recurring theme for these elite Missouri wrestlers, despite any hardships.

“I’m confident enough that I know what’s going to happen,” Eblen said. “I believe that I’m at least going to be an All-American this year, and I feel like I could be a national champ.”

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