As the season opener approaches, a final look at Mizzou wrestling’s lineup
In light of the threat of rain, the Tigers confirmed this morning that their Illinois dual will be held outside at Mizzou Softball Stadium as planned.
Nov. 03, 2017
Brian Smith has spent his final week of the wrestling preseason training himself in meteorology.
Sitting in his fourth floor Hearnes Center office, the head coach of the Missouri Tigers instinctively checked his phone every hour, scrolling to see the latest forecast update for Saturday, Nov. 4.
His compulsiveness was with good reason — just two days ahead of Mizzou’s highly anticipated, outdoor season opener with Illinois, the team had yet to have any certainty of rain or shine. The fate of the dual’s setting was left up to the mercy and ever-changing whims of Missouri weather.
“I know now I would not enjoy being the softball or baseball coach,” Smith said. Even as he chatted with media Thursday afternoon, laid back in an arm chair outside his office, his phone repeatedly emerged from his pocket. “I have never looked at the Weather Channel as much as I have this past week.”
Friday morning, Smith and the Tiger Style program finally confirmed what fans had long hoped: The meet will be held outside at Mizzou Softball Stadium as planned.
The venue will be one of a kind. The atmosphere will be electric. Mizzou will be ready to rumble.
The team was ranked No. 5 in the country in the USA Today/NWCA Division I Wrestling Coaches Poll on Tuesday and will start the year against one of its most formidable opponents in No. 14 Illinois.
It will be the first look at a new era of Mizzou wrestling, one without the closing presence of Olympic bronze medalist J’den Cox on the mat.
“In 2007, people would ask the question, ‘How are you guys gonna be without Ben Askren?’ Of course, now it’s post-J’den Cox,” Smith said. “I think from the way I've seen them practice, we’re going to be OK.”
Indeed, the Tigers, whose impressive depth may have been lost amidst four years of frenzy over Cox, are returning four All-Americans this season. Most of their primary lineup for the season is set, with a couple exceptions.
Mizzou will look to gain a consistent boost at the front of its lineup from an experienced leader. It appeared for a while that Barlow McGhee would be battling it out with fellow redshirt senior Aaron Assad for the starting spot, but McGhee seems to have secured the role this fall.
McGhee struggled his junior year, going 4-5 in the MAC, and historically has not contributed much power to the team, with just two career falls and four technical falls. Three of those aren’t even official, having come from the season he redshirted.
“I’m trying to boost that number up by three times that number this year,” McGhee said after the team’s Student Center practice on Oct. 19. “I’m going hard, nonstop. I’m gonna get my offense going a lot this year. I’m going to be a scoring monster; I’m going to be a machine.”
Redshirt junior John Erneste is one of five Tigers opening in the national top 10 of their weight class. At No. 9, the defending MAC champion is in full control of his position after a breakout sophomore campaign.
“Whenever you end a season on a loss, which I did, you’re always ready to get back on the mat,” Erneste said. “You get tired of wrestling everyone on your team. It’s nice to go out there and have a new opponent who you can open up against.”
The first new opponent he’ll go up against will provide quite a challenge. The Fighting Illini’s Dylan Duncan, No. 18 in the nation at the 133, is a foe Erneste has split matches with.
“I’ll get to see how far I’ve improved since last year,” Erneste said.
After finishing fifth at the NCAA championships in St. Louis as a redshirt freshman, Jaydin Eierman just kept getting better ahead of the 2017 season.
“Last year I was cutting a lot of weight, but I feel a lot better this year,” he said. “I’m eating good, doing all my nutrition right, and I can see that improvement because I’m able to go longer. My conditioning is a lot better.”
Eierman’s successful offseason included a third-place finish at the U23 World Team Trials in October. He’s No. 4 in the country in his weight class and hopes to repeat as an All-American. He very well could top his five falls and seven major decisions from last year. And now that he has collegiate experience under his belt, he’s looking forward to being one of Mizzou’s best.
“I’m going to hopefully dominate every match,” he said.
This spot should belong to redshirt junior Grant Leeth, who transferred from Duke after going to high school in the Kansas City area and winning three Missouri state titles.
Leeth will play the underdog in his season-opening clash against No. 19 Eric Barone of Illinois on Saturday. The 149 is looking like one of the Tigers’ weaker spots so far, so look out for depth and second options at the position, especially freshman Lane Stigall, who triumphed against a 157-pound opponent in the Black and Gold dual last Friday.
Joey Lavallee could be as dominant as anyone for Mizzou this year, starting his senior season ranked No. 2 in the country at 157.
The Nevada native earned a trip to St. Louis for the NCAA championships last season, where he claimed the national runner-up title. His 29-2 record led Mizzou in wins, and they weren’t narrow victories either, as eight major decisions totaled second for the team. Lavallee should be a stable figure who can bring the Tigers dual points on a consistent basis.
This will be one of the most interesting spots on the lineup as it belongs solely to redshirt sophomore Connor Flynn, who hasn’t made an official appearance for Mizzou yet. After spending his freshman year at West Virginia, Flynn transferred and redshirted a year for coach Smith.
“[Flynn] was competing a lot last year, so it wasn’t like he just had a year off,” Smith said. “I can tell he’s at home here. I look at him as one of the leaders of the team, the way he carries himself.”
Redshirt senior Willie Miklus added that among the team’s youth, Flynn is Mizzou’s best kept secret. He’ll be thrown right into the fray Saturday, making his debut for the Tigers against Illinois’ best and the nation's No. 2 at 165 in Isaiah Martinez.
Redshirt junior Daniel Lewis was dominant last year at the 165, so naturally, he was moved to a new role.
He was an All-American two straight years at his former weight class, so his bump-up transition will present the biggest test of adaptability for Mizzou this year, in more ways than one.
The Tigers’ upper weight classes are filled with shifting positions and new faces, and Lewis’ move to 174, while a challenge for himself, also sets off a domino effect that makes the back end of the lineup the most ambiguous and fascinating aspect of the team.
“He’s definitely filled into being a 174-pounder pretty easily,” Smith said.
The biggest toss-up weight class for Mizzou will be filled on opening day by Canten Marriott, a redshirt freshman out of Excelsior Springs, Missouri.
Redshirt sophomore Dylan Wisman will jump into the mix when he’s injury free and available; Smith also acknowledged another redshirt freshman, Wyatt Koelling, as a contender for the spot after competing with the junior world team over the summer.
“That’s a talented weight class right now,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a locked-up position, but we’re going to see how things go.”
No, it’s not J’den Cox. It’s Willie Miklus, a redshirt senior methodical on the mat in his own right, and perhaps the most worthy successor of one of Mizzou’s most accomplished athletes.
“J’den had my spot,” Miklus said with a smirk.
One of the most resilient wrestlers on the team, Miklus will return to the lineup Saturday for the first time since a season-ending knee injury against Virginia Tech early in the 2016-17 campaign.
“It’s been a long year,” Smith said. “He went through some difficult times, wondering if he was ever going to get back, and there was even a point in the summer where we thought, man, is he ever going to get his quickness back? But in the last four or five weeks, Willie Miklus has become the Willie of old.”
A two-time All-American opening at No. 3 nationally in his weight class, Miklus has the ability to jump out to big leads early in matches, a trait that has earned him 21 career technical falls already. Now the last piece of the puzzle fits for him, as he’ll finally take the 197-pound spot that he was originally recruited for.
Redshirt sophomore Austin Myers seems to have the role locked down for now, but redshirt freshman Rodrigo Diaz could also become a contender as the season goes on.
Saturday’s dual is set for 4 p.m. at Mizzou Softball Stadium.
Edited by Eli Lederman | firstname.lastname@example.org