While we work hard at TOM to be objective and as unbiased as possible, we all were fans before we started writing about wrestling professionally. With that, we have our favorite teams that we pull for and, especially this time of year, want to see do well. In that spirit, we thought it would be fun to let our hair down a little at the most exciting time of the college wrestling season to enter the Fan Zone. We’ll have fans of Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma State, and Iowa getting a little partisan over the next few days as they take a look at their team’s outlook as we head for Cleveland. For these pieces, at least, we’re going back to our roots as fans of the greatest sport in the world! In this edition, Chase Lynn stops by to tell us why Missouri might just snag the third team trophy in program history.
Before Brian Smith took over as the head coach at the University of Missouri, the wrestling program was one of the worst teams in the athletic department. Fast forward 19 years later and the 2017 NWCA Coach of the Year has not only one of the best teams on campus but in the nation. Since beginning his tenure at Mizzou, Smith has coached 24 wrestlers to 47 All-American finishes, five wrestlers to eight individual national championships, won seven straight conference titles and placed in the top 10 multiple times at the NCAA national championships.
Thriving on Smith’s ‘Tiger Style’ coaching approach, the Tigers finished the regular season undefeated, 19-0. This is the second time in Smith’s tenure that he’s led Mizzou to a perfect season. The last time that occurred was the 2014-15 season when the Tigers finished a disappointing fourth place at the NCAA tournament, being outscored by three teams they had defeated that season in dual competition. Under Smith in 2007, Mizzou placed third overall at NCAAs with just three All-Americans and one national champion, Ben Askren. That and 2015 are the only team trophies Missouri has won in program history. With loaded lineups like Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma State, and Iowa competing this season, Mizzou will need a lot more than three All-Americans if they plan on earning a trophy in Cleveland.
Good news for the Tigers, though, as they’re taking a nearly full lineup to the NCAA tournament with nine qualifiers. Wyatt Koelling (285) is the lone wrestler that did not receive a bid. Six of the nine are seeded within the top six of their weight class and two, Jaydin Eierman (141) and Joey Lavallee (157), are seeded number two overall. Mizzou returns five NCAA qualifiers from last season, (Barlow McGhee, John Erneste, Jaydin Eierman, Joey Lavallee, and Daniel Lewis) three of which are returning All-Americans. Missouri finished fifth last year with 86.5 points. Last season, the Tigers were without two-time All-American Willie Miklus (197) due to injury. He fills the spot of two-time national champion J’den Cox. For the previous four consecutive national tournaments, Mizzou has had a national champion. The Tigers will be tested in Cleveland when battling for a team trophy. Here’s a more in-depth look at their lineup.
It’s shocking that Barlow McGhee earned a wildcard to be competing at the national tournament. McGhee enters the tournament with a record of 15-11. He placed fourth at the MAC tournament where only two automatic bids were awarded at 125lbs. Somehow, McGhee managed to earn a bid over Drew Hildebrandt (Central Michigan) who finished third by defeating McGhee twice. Hildebrandt also beat McGhee in January when the two faced off in a dual. Nonetheless, McGhee is wrestling in Cleveland and Hildebrandt isn’t. (Editor’s note: Hildebrandt did not meet the requirements for at-large consideration.) A three-time NCAA qualifier, McGhee’s performance has decreased over the course of his career at Missouri. In 2016, McGhee was one-win shy of becoming an All-American. Going 0-2 last year, McGhee hasn’t won a match at the national tournament since his round of 12 defeat. 2018 starts off with a tough draw for McGhee as he faces returning NCAA finalist Ethan Lizak (Minnesota). Assuming that McGhee loses to Lizak, he should face Elijah Oliver (Indiana) who has Ronnie Rios (Oregon State) first round. Oliver is guaranteed to be a close matchup with McGhee but winnable. If he manages to squeak by Oliver, I expect his career to come to an end, as after that as he would face the loser of Taylor LaMont (Utah Valley) and Sebastian Rivera (Northwestern) who both are in the conversation for All-American honors.
One thing Brian Smith does an excellent job of is filling unexpected holes in his lineup. When Jaydin Eierman bumped up to 141 lbs midway through last season, John Erneste not only answered the call, he impressed everyone in doing so. He won a MAC title and went 2-2 at the national tournament. This year, Erneste enters as the five seed. Erneste has two losses this season, one to Jack Mueller (Virginia), who sits as the 10 seed on the other half of the bracket, and the other to four seed Kaid Brock (Oklahoma State). If Erneste can defeat the dangerous Tariq Wilson (NC State) and returning NCAA qualifier Josh Terao (American), he could get a rematch with Brock in the quarterfinals. In his collegiate career, Erneste is 0-3 against Brock, so it would take a lot of mojo to upset him at NCAAs. If Erneste falls to Brock, regardless of who he faces in the round of 12, it’s not going to be simple. He could face Austin DeSanto (Drexel) who would be a more than dangerous matchup.
Prediction: Round of 12, 2-2
Ironically a man named Jaydin that originates from Columbia, Missouri is Mizzou’s best shot at an individual national champion and is the main source for bonus points for the team. So far Jaydin Eierman is one for one in his college career earning All-American status, but we all know Eierman’s goals go beyond that. He wants to and has the potential to win a national championship. Eierman enters Cleveland as the two-seed in the 141 lb weight class. He has one loss this season to top-seeded Bryce Meredith (Wyoming). Eierman has either majored, tech-falled, or pinned more than 75% of his opponents this season. He’s been the driving force behind Mizzou’s blowouts over many opponents this season. Eierman faces no trouble reaching the semifinals. He may have a closer match than he anticipates with one loss Brock Zacherl (Clarion), but he won’t lose. In the semifinals, Eierman should face the true freshman phenom, Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell), or two-time defending national champion, Dean Heil (Oklahoma State). In January, Eiermann relied on a third-period cradle to defeat Diakomihlais, 9-6. Eierman was trialing, 5-3, with just 30 seconds remaining in the match. In that same month, Eierman surprised the wrestling community by pinning Heil in the second period. I don’t expect Eierman to rely on last-second heroics this time to defeat Diakomihalis and I think he’s significantly better than Heil this season, but if he needs to, he can score near-fall from almost any position. In such a wide open loaded weight class, it’s hard to predict who Eierman would face in the finals. Regardless of who it is, I think Eierman’s mentality in the spotlight and funkiness will help him prevail to become Mizzou’s 8th overall national champion in school history.
Prediction: 1st place, 5-0
Everyone loves a good Cinderella story. Despite being seeded third, the fact that Grant Leeth is wrestling at the national tournament is already a fairy tale. After suffering a neck injury at Duke, Leeth was told he would probably never be able to wrestle again. Following the surgery, Leeth was plagued by a handful of other injuries. Now back in his home state, Leeth vowes to become an All-American. His only two losses this season came in November to Davion Jeffries (Oklahoma) and Boo Lewallen (Oklahoma State), who face each other first round. Leeth avenged his loss to Lewallen in January. He has wins over 2016 All-American Justin Olver (Central Michigan) and returning All-American Max Thomsen (Northern Iowa). A more conservative wrestler, Leeth should decision his way to the quarterfinals. There he should face Oliver or returning All-American Matt Kolodzik (Princeton). If we’re going on paper, Leeth would then face three-time All-American, Brandon Sorensen (Iowa) in the semifinals. That would make for a rather low scoring, one takedown type match. I don’t see Leeth spoiling the Sorensen vs Zain Retherford (Penn State) finals matchup. If that is the case, I wouldn’t be surprised if Leeth dropped a matchup in the consolation semifinals or medal round. Regardless, Leeth leaves Cleveland with his neck brace and a medal.
Prediction: 4th place, 4-2
Who would’ve thought that the Big Ten tournament would have an effect on Joey Lavallee? Better yet, who would’ve thought that two-time NCAA finalist and defending national champion Jason Nolf (Penn State) would be a three seed at the national tournament? Maybe Lavallee, an NCAA finalist last season, doesn’t care, but if he wants to return to the finals he will have to get past Nolf or last year’s third-place finisher, Michael Kemerer (Iowa). Kemerer suffered his first loss of the season at the Big Ten tournament, to Micah Jordan (Ohio State), knocking Kemerer all the way down to the sixth seed. The good news for Lavalle is that he’ll only have to wrestle one of them on the championship side. The bad news is that it’ll probably be Nolf, who beat Lavallee in last year’s final, 14-6. Like the majority of this year’s Mizzou team, Lavallee is a hammer on top. With multiple tech-falls and falls racked up this season, I expect Lavallee to do the same en route to reaching the semifinals. Maybe just maybe, Nolf not being fully healed will allow Lavallee to keep it a close match. For third place, Lavallee should meet up with Kemerer. Surprisingly, the two have never met in their college careers. This will be an interesting matchup featuring two very different styles.
Prediction: 4th place, 4-2
This is where Mizzou’s lineup starts to look slightly different than previous years. With the departure of Cox, guys like Daniel Lewis and Willie Miklus moved up a weight class. That created room for West Virginia transfer Connor Flynn. A native of the Show Me state, Flynn punched his first ticket to the national tournament by winning the 165 lb weight class at the MAC tournament. Unseeded, Flynn makes his national tournament debut against 14 seed Branson Ashworth (Wyoming). Ashworth defeated Flynn in December at the Reno Tournament of Champions, 6-1. A win in the first round on the consolation side may be Flynn’s only win of the tournament as he would face the loser of Te’Shan Campbell (Ohio State) and Chad Walsh (Rider). Flynn also has a loss to Walsh this season, 7-4. On the bright side, all but two of Flynn’s losses this year have come by decision. There’s no doubt he can scrap with the best but I don’t think he has the experience yet to do actually go far in this tournament, especially at a weight with so much talent. Only a redshirt-sophomore, Flynn is one of the guys that I expect Smith to turn into an All-American by his senior season.
Like IMar and Logan Massa (Michigan), Daniel Lewis fell victim to Cenzo Joseph’s (Penn State) inside trip at last year’s NCAA tournament. Seeking his third medal in his third trip, there’s no doubt that Lewis is one of the best wrestlers in the country in the top position. The Tiger’s only undefeated wrestler, Lewis has 16 falls this season and five tech-falls. In last year’s tournament, Lewis accumulated 6:51 of riding time in one match. However, the biggest problems for Lewis is conditioning and bouncing back on the consolation side. Following his defeat in last year’s quarterfinal, Lewis dropped two more bouts placing sixth overall, two spots lower than his fourth-place finish in his freshman campaign. Lewis’s first test will come in the quarterfinal against returning finalist Bo Jordan (Ohio State). If he wins that he gets rewarded with returning national champion Mark Hall (Penn State). The odds aren’t in Lewis’s favor to reach the finals but I wouldn’t be surprised if he caught Jordan or Hall with his dangerous cradle. If Lewis ends up on the backside, I think he’ll pick up some major bonus points. Lewis is a major contributor of team points for Mizzou and a major key to keeping them in the team race.
Prediction: 4th place, 4-2
Redshirt-freshmen Canten Marriott is the youngest Tiger in the ambush. He booked a ticket to Cleveland via wildcard after placing fourth at the MAC tournament. With a record of 25-6 Marriott was awarded the 15 seed. Four of Marriott’s losses are to NCAA qualifiers, two of which are returning All-Americans. Marriott opens the tournament with Mitch Bowman (Iowa), a first-round win over Iowa would be good for the team race. Win that and Marriott would face two-time All-American and 2016 national champion Myles Martin (Ohio State). If Bowman were to beat Marriott, he’d face Bryce Gorman (Northern Illinois) who he lost to at the MAC tournament. The first round is a must-win matchup for Marriott. To reach the blood round, Marriott is most likely going to have to defeat Emery Parker (Illinois). Marriott made his debut in a Missouri singlet against Parker in the first dual meet of the season, Parker was the winner, 6-2. Based on his placement in the bracket, Marriott is going to see a lot of familiar opponents. This could be a good or bad thing. Like Flynn, Marriott is a guy that’s going to develop over the years.
If there is anyone in the Tiger lineup that wrestles better than he’s projected at the national tournament, it’s Willie Miklus. The redshirt-senior was just granted a sixth-year medical shirt after missing last season due to injury. His main focus though is on this year as he aims to earn his third medal in his third try. In 2015, Miklus was unseeded and finished seventh. The following year he was seeded 14th and finished sixth. This year Miklus is the sixth seed, one weight up at 197 lbs. The seeds set up a rematch in the quarterfinals between Miklus and Jared Haught (Virginia Tech). In their first meeting this season, Miklus was trailing, 7-2, in the third period before pinning Haught with just five seconds remaining in the match. It’s the Tiger Style mentality that makes no lead safe for the opposition. If Miklus is able to upend Haught for a second time this season, he’ll get a rematch with Ben Darmstadt (Cornell). Darmstadt handed Miklus one his worst losses this season, 9-0. Fortunately for Miklus, it’s an easier path this year to reach All-American status. He’s another guy Mizzou will bank on for bonus points. Half of his wins at the NCAA tournament have been by major decision or fall. It’s not an easy road to the finals for Miklus but that hasn’t stopped him from shining before on the big stage. He has a legitimate shot at winning this weight class.
Prediction: 5th place, 5-2
Don’t get me wrong, this Mizzou team is loaded with talent. But I don’t think it’s talented enough in this year’s field to crack the top three. If three finalists and one national champion wasn’t enough last season, one national champion and a handful of All-Americans probably won’t be enough this year. Ultimately I think positioning in the brackets will be the Tigers biggest opposition. The quarterfinals and semifinals are the most important rounds for them. Matchups with Iowa, Michigan, and Oklahoma State will also be a major component. A lot of those could occur in the consolation semifinals and placement bouts. I expect Mizzou to finish anywhere from fourth to sixth place overall.