Welcome to Day 4 of WIN Magazine’s countdown to the 2023 Final...
Missouri believes it’s a ‘team’ that can win it all
By Mike Finn, WIN Editor
J’den Cox may only be a true sophomore for the Missouri wrestling team. But the 197-pounder knows what it takes to win an individual championship; something he did last March in capturing the NCAA title in Oklahoma City … and something he did Jan. 2, when Cox won his first Southern Scuffle title.
But the Tiger, a native of Columbia, Mo., said he felt something different while winning all five bouts in Chattanooga, Tenn., including a 6-1 win over Conner Hartmann of Duke in the championship bout. (See above)
“I’ve never felt that this team is more of a team than it is now at this tournament. It was an awesome feeling but strange because I had not felt it like this before,” said Cox, who added he looks at individual and team accomplishments as the same level.
“One affects the other. You have to take care of things individually if you want the team to prosper.”
And while the Tigers finished second to Penn State by 15 points (165-150) in modified scoring system at the recent Southern Scuffle, no school crowned more champions than Missouri as senior Alan Waters (125 pounds) and sophomore Lavion Mayes (141) also left Chattanooga with championships, while two-time All-American Drake Houdashelt finished second at 149 pounds.
Waters defeated Cornell’s Nahshon Garrett, 3-1 by scoring a third-period reversal and riding out Garrett for an additional riding-time point. Garrett, a two-time All-American, is the last wrestler to defeat Waters: 6-1 in the 2013 NCAA third-place match before an off-season injury forced Waters to redshirt last winter.
“It was not fun taking the redshirt year; sitting in the stands watching others compete,” said Waters. “But it gave me a chance to work on some of my weaknesses. I was able to take a step back and look at it from a different perspective.
Mayes, a native of Mascoutah, Ill., who qualified for the 2014 NCAAs, defeated Boise State’s Geo Martinez, 6-4, for his first Scuffle title.
“When you train with a national champ in J’den Cox or All-Americans like Alan Waters and Drake Houdashelt and have one of the best coaches (Brian Smith) in the nation, you’re going to gain confidence,” said Mayes, who is ranked fifth by WIN this season.
“When coach says something from the corner, my body just does it. I don’t question whether it’s the right thing to do. My body just does it. They’ve put in all these great beliefs and that’s why we should be the team to watch this year. If you look at us right now, we’re tough and we’re going to get a whole lot tougher from here.”
Overall, seven Tigers placed for Missouri, including a third-place finish by senior John Eblen at 174 pounds, sixth-place by redshirt freshman Willie Miklus at 184 pounds and fourth place by heavyweight Devin Mellon. Eblen began the season at 184 but together with senior teammate Mikey England (who went 2-2 at 165 pounds) told Smith that they wanted to drop down one weight class to improve the team’s lot this upcoming postseason.
“The seniors came to me and said we want a shot at winning a (national team) title and said they wanted to bring their weights down,” said Smith, whose school will serve as hosts for the 2015 NCAAs in St. Louis. “I said that’s awesome. They were certified there but it was about a month ago they told me they wanted to drop down.
“There was a point where I told John that Willie was wrestling really well and we’re going to go with him. He realized he wanted to be a part of this and he dropped and England dropped.”
Currently, Missouri is ranked third in WIN’s Tournament Power Index (TPI) with five wrestlers — Waters, Mayes, Houdashelt, Eblen and Cox — picked to earn All-American honors. Missouri’s highest all-time finish was third in 2007 .
And the Tigers are also ranked fifth in WIN’s dual-team rankings with a perfect 12-0 mark, which included a 20-19 victory at Ohio State on Dec. 14; leading to the question: Is Missouri a great dual team or tournament team?
“We’re a team,” said Smith, who is in his 17th year at Missouri. “We don’t have to prove anything. We just keep wrestling and show up in March. We have a tough schedule (including Jan. 10 at Cornell and Jan. 23 vs. Oklahoma State). “(The Missouri wrestlers) know that we are going to compete with everyone and people will say, ‘Where’s Missouri been?’
“We’ll say, ‘The same place as ever.’ ”