It is difficult to overstate the effect that Missouri Head Wrestling Coach Brian Smith has had on the program. When Smith took over as head coach before the 1998-99 season, Missouri had won just 22 All-American honors, had never had an NCAA champion, had only finished in the top-10 at NCAAs once, finishing 10th in 1984, and had won just 325 duals in their 75-year history. In the 18 years since, Missouri has amassed 42 All-American honors, won seven individual NCAA titles, finished in the top-10 at NCAAs five times, climbing as high as third place and has 237 dual wins. Along the way, Coach Smith and his program have inserted Tiger Style firmly into the college wrestling lexicon.
If you ask most college wrestling fans who the team title contenders are for the upcoming year, you’re likely to hear about Penn State, Oklahoma State, Iowa and Ohio State. You may get some that like Virginia Tech. Few will mention Missouri, but the Tigers have a lineup that has the potential to be among the best in the country. It all starts with two-time national champion J’Den Cox (Sr, 197) who, after his remarkable summer culminated in an Olympic bronze medal, returns attempting to become Missouri’s first ever three-time national champion. He will be the favorite to do so and may score a lot more bonus points than some might expect. Cox finished ninth in the NCAA’s most dominant standings a year ago. Missouri could use every point he can earn for them.
A pair of two-time All-Americans, senior Lavion Mayes (149) and junior Willie Miklus (184), also return for Missouri and should provide plenty of firepower themselves. Mayes was third a year ago, but it will be difficult for him to move up in a weight class ruled by Zain Retherford (Penn State) and with runner-up Brandon Sorensen (Iowa) also coming back. Miklus recovered from a rough, injury plagued stretch in the middle of last season to finish sixth. His weight class, too, will be loaded again, making it difficult to move up much. Daniel Lewis (Soph, 165), who was fourth as a freshman a year ago, will have to battle 2016 runner-up Isaac Jordan (Wisconsin) and two-time 157-pound national champion Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) for the finals spot he covets.
With their best wrestlers in positions that make it difficult for the Tigers to gain points after last year’s sixth place finish, Missouri will need the rest of the roster to step up. There are certainly a few spots in the lineup that Coach Smith and staff will be expecting to do just that. Barlow McGhee (Jr, 125) reached the round of 12 in 2016. Jaydin Eierman (Fr, 133) had a tremendous redshirt year and steps into the line-up as an immediate All-American threat. Matt Manley (Sr, 141) looked like an All-American last year until an injury at the MAC tournament took him down. All three of those wrestlers have a good chance to finish on the podium. The Tigers need them as high as possible if they are to mount a real title challenge.
The other three starting spots are less likely to contribute much in March, but there is enough potential there that Missouri fans will certainly have hope. Joey Lavallee (Jr, 157), in particular, flashed the ability to be a top-12 type of wrestler in his first two seasons, qualifying for the NCAA tournament in 2014 and 2015 before redshirting a year ago. If he has continued to improve he could provide a critical boost to the team score.
174 and 285 will be manned by young talent for the Tigers. Dylan Wisman (Fr, 174) might be a year or two away from being a true All-American threat. Similarly, Austin Myers (Fr, 285), who transferred in from West Virginia after a 21-8 redshirt year, probably isn’t there just yet, but it is a long season. If the light comes on for either one, it will make an already deep lineup even tougher.
Overall, Missouri probably lacks the high-end firepower to compete for the team title, especially with the number of teams that seem to be loaded for 2016-17. They will, undoubtedly, be one of the toughest dual teams in the nation and have a legitimate shot to take a team trophy home from St. Louis. Considering where this program was 20 years ago, that is no minor accomplishment.
The 2016-17 Missouri Tiger wrestling schedule features duals against Virginia Tech (Nov 20th), Ohio State (Dec 8th), Cornell (Jan 14th) and Oklahoma State (Jan 27th). Their tournament slate includes the UNI Open (Dec 3rd) and the Southern Scuffle (Jan 1st and 2nd) before they start the post-season. The MAC Championships will be hosted by Northern Iowa (March 4th and 5th) while the NCAA tournament is back in St. Louis, March 16th, 17th and 18th.
Photo Courtesy of Missouri