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If Missouri, the top-ranked NCAA Division I wrestling team, does indeed win the team championship in St. Louis this Saturday, March 21, it will indeed make history as the Tigers program would become just the 12 different school to win a team title in the 85-year history of the annual prestigious event.
But a team championship by the Tigers could also encourage other success-starved wrestling fans outside the state of Missouri. Those would be in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas; states that are members of the Southeastern Conference, but — unlike Missouri — do not offer Division I wrestling in those other SEC schools.
That is why Missouri competes in the Mid-American Conference — only in wrestling — after the school chose to leave the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012.
“We are proud of the MAC,” said Missouri coach Brian Smith, whose team won a third straight MAC championship two weeks ago and sent all ten wrestlers to the NCAAs. “But if we had a chance to win an SEC championship, that would be great.
“I think our team wants to win no matter what is in front of them, but I think it would mean more to the state and the administration and the school if we won an SEC title.”
Smith pointed out that the SEC Network is interested in televising Missouri dual meets next season and that the Tiger’s victory over Iowa in the finals of the NWCA National Duals in February ran along on the ticker on the bottom of the screen.
“When we beat Iowa in the dual, a guy sent me a letter he sent to Mike Slive (SEC Commissioner) and pointed out the No. 1 team in the country right now is an SEC school and the states that represent the SEC have strong wrestling, especially in Florida and Georgia and Texas. He said (the SEC) needs to take a look at wrestling and the sport needs to be in these states because none of them have Division I wrestling and it really should be for the kids in high schools of those states.”
Smith, a native of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., also is working with a new athletic director Mack Rhoads, who was named March 9 after serving as AD at Houston and Akron, two schools that do not offer wrestling.
But Smith said Rhoads was present at Missouri’s official send off from Columbia to St. Louis on March 17 and made a point of speaking to the Tigers before they left for the NCAAs.
“As a head coach at a Division I institution, very few of us have ADs who are familiar with wrestling,” said Smith. “(Missouri assistant AD) Sara Reesman has been my boss for the past 17 years and she knows wrestling
“It’s part of our job to invite them to practice, take them on a road trip, let them see the community service you are doing. Make them know that these are great kids and this is not a barbaric sport. There are these misconceptions about the sport, but you have to bring them in. It’s our job to make them love wrestling.”
Smith also warned that wrestling needs to keep an eye on what happens to the sport now that the Big 5 Conferences (Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12, which only half have wresting) will be changing the landscape of college sports.
“College athletics is changing, and it’s changing really fast,” Smith said. “The fact that a lot of student-athletes (in the power five conference) are getting more money, and free meals, and all. The reason that will affect wrestling is because of the 77 programs there aren’t a lot of them in these ‘power conferences.’ It’s going to separate our sport from most of the other sports in those conferences, so as a sport we are going to get together and see how we can improve wrestling and keep everything as fair as possible in comparison to other NCAA athletic programs.”
The other school that is hoping to win its first-ever team championship is Ohio State … and the Buckeyes could also see Logan Stieber become just the fourth wrestler from any school to capture four NCAA championships.
So what would mean more to the 141-pound star from Monroeville, Ohio, — who hopes to join Pat Smith (Oklahoma State), Cael Sanderson (Iowa State) and Kyle Dake (Cornell) as the only wrestlers to capture four NCAA titles — winning the fourth individual or seeing his school capture its first-ever team title?
“I think in order for us to win the team title, I need to win [the individual title] so I don’t think it’s a one or the other situation,” said Stieber. “For us to win the team title would be very special. It would mean a lot to me, my teammates, and to all of the coaches that I’ve ever had.”
It would also mean a great deal to his younger brother, Hunter, the 149-pound Buckeye who was limited to just seven matches before the NCAAs because of multiple injuries to his upper extremities.
In fact, Ohio State coach Tom Ryan, who redshirted the two-time All-American last season, said they considered shelving Hunter again for this postseason. Instead, they changed their mind when Hunter said he wanted to compete this year.
“The reason for sitting Hunter (last year) is that we didn’t want them to all leave after this year,” said Ryan. “Then things happened and you have a guy who was healthy all last year but has not been healthy at all this year.
“The amazing thing about Hunter is that he chose not to get the surgery for a few reasons. One, he was overwhelmed with the love that he saw from when we wrestled a dual meet at his hometown (in late January). It was packed and when they introduced the Stiebers, they erupted. He felt an additional sense that this is bigger than me.
“The other thing is the team. We need him. And the final thing was the desire to win it with his brother.”
Two years ago, when Logan Stieber won his second NCAA title at 133 pounds, Hunter was seeded No. 1 at 141 pounds, but was upset by Edinboro’s Mitchell Port, 7-6, in the semifinals. Hunter settled for third place; one year after he finished sixth in 2012.
“(Hunter) was in a position to win it with his brother two years ago when he was up 6-2 in the semifinals (against Port, who lost to Oklahoma’s Kendric Maple in the finals). “He normally doesn’t lose when he leads like that because he does not give up points.
“Now fast forward to Logan’s senior year and he wanted to wrestle in his brother’s last year. We have the capacity to score points at that weight (from other wrestlers on the team), but when you have a Hunter Stieber, you wait.”
Hunter Stieber is not the only former All-American who saw injuries limit his competition dates this season.
Most notably, the same could be said about Illinois’ 125-pound Jesse Delgado, the two-time national champion who was limited to just 12 bouts (9-3) this season, and Oklahoma State’s Josh Kindig, the defending national runner-up at 149 pounds, who enters the NCAAs with a 14-4 mark.
And like Hunter Stieber, none of these three were seeded for the 2015 NCAAs.
Delgado opens up the tournament against No. 8 seed Tyler Cox of Wyoming and would most likely have to beat No. 9 seed Dylan Peters of Northern Iowa and top-seed Alan Waters of Missouri, just to reach the semifinals.
At 149 pounds, David Habat, the No. 3 seed, will open up against Kindig in a first-round match, and then would have to wrestle Hunter Stieber if the Buckeye beats Hofstra’s No. 14 seed Cody Ruggirello.
The seeding committee did not consider historic data when it came to ranking the wrestlers before the Nationals.
What if that would have happened to Logan Stieber?
“I probably wouldn’t care too much,” said Logan. “I know Jesse is an awesome competitor so he’s probably thinking that being seeded would be nice, but he’s a champ, so I’m sure he has confidence in himself that he can win it all. If I weren’t seeded, it would be OK. Everyone here is pretty good so anyone is going to be tough no matter where you are in the bracket.”
“I think the shocker is that, throughout the year, you see guys ranked in different places, and then the last week of the season that ranking is blown up out of nowhere,” said Ryan. “I think the stunning turn of events based on one weekend is what surprised people. At this point, the seeds are irrelevant. I think after the weekend, the coaches will get together and look at it, and hopefully improve it. We know the committee did the best job they could with the information they had. There was no bias and they did what they thought was right. However, there needs to be change and we will focus on that after the weekend.”