For the second straight season, the University of Missouri wrestling program has been able to qualify all ten grapplers into the NCAA Championships, which will be contested in Des Moines, IA on March 21st through 23rd. Eight wrestlers qualified through the recent MAC Wrestling Championships, which Mizzou won to break Central Michigan’s eleven-season streak. The other two wrestlers were given one of a few wild card selections to make the trip.
While it is awesome to send all ten to the tournament, an accomplishment which Mizzou achieved last season, it does not automatically equate to team success at the NCAA’s. Last year, Mizzou wrestled strong and inspired on their way out of the Big XII’s, winning the tournament. However, once at the NCAA's, they finished outside the top-20 for the first time in a decade and failed to have an All-American (top-8 in a weight class) for the first time since 2001. Our ten wrestlers in a double-elimination format went only a combined 15-20. In contrast, the Tigers of 2006-07 sent eight wrestlers to Detroit, MI for the championships, but because Ben Askren was running through everyone and Matt Pell was pinning almost everyone on his way to finishing third, that team came in third. It is all about getting wins and bonus points where you can.
In Buffalo, the Tigers loaded up on bonus points, which are given out for wins by more than 8 points (major decision), more than 15 points (tech falls) and pins. These can add up quickly and Mizzou has shown the ability to finish more matches this year than in recent memory. But the key to a high finish as a team is to not get shut out. Back in 2007, eventual National Champion Max Askren was #1 at 197, but went 0-2 and was eliminated without contributing to the Tigers team score. But enough about history, let’s see what lies ahead for this group of grapplers.
Like ’07, the Tigers have two sitting as top seed in their respective weight classes. Where the Askren brothers held that distinction at 174 and 197, this year, the Tigers have a pair of bookends. Junior Alan Waters has been one of the best at 125 since starting a couple of years back, but success in the NCAA tournament has alluded him. As a #3 seed, Waters was upset in the 2nd round last year and failed to get far enough to make the podium as an All-American.
This year, Waters enters Iowa sitting at 29-0, with seven wins over ranked opponents, including a recent 4-0 over defending champ Matt McDonough of Iowa. He will face a 13-10 David Thorn of Minnesota first before taking on the winner of Rappo/Soria and Sean Boyle. Soria of Buffalo is someone who Waters just wrestled at the MAC’s, beating him by tech fall 17-2. Other names in the next round he could see is either #9 seed Trent Sprenkle of NDSU or #8 Matt Snyder of UVA. Waters faced both last season, beating Sprenkle 4-2 and Snyder 4-1. Wins against any of the potential above would advance Waters to the semis, so you can see where the expectations are rightfully high for Waters. With McDonough as the #3 seed and Jesse Delgado of Illinois (who upset McDonough and won the BIG title last week) as the #2 seed, Waters has as good of a draw for which you could ask. Let’s hope he takes advantage of it, because as the #1 seed, you are expected to win the tournament.
The long line of the Wrestling McCormicks at Mizzou will finally end as senior Nathan McCormick takes to the mat for this final weekend. McCormick earned a #6 national seed in the tournament this year. Last year, he went 1-2 on his way to a somewhat quick exit in a season which only saw him go 16-7. This year, McCormick has been very steady, sitting with a 31-4 record after winning a MAC title last weekend in dominant fashion, as he earned bonus points in each of the three matches (Tech, pin and major decision over #11 wrestler in the nation). He has 10 wins over ranked wrestlers this year; with his 4 losses coming to #7 seeded Jon Morrison of OSU and #1 seeded Logan Steiber of tOSU.
McCormick will draw VaTech wrestler Erik Spjut in the opener, who has a 17-11 record. The next round would likely see him matched up against #11 seed George DiCamillo of UVA. These two squared off earlier this season at the Las Vegas Open, with McCormick winning 5-3 thanks to a Sudden Victory period (OT) takedown. Projecting forward, Nathan has no experience in college against #3 seed Tyler Graff of Wisconsin. But, with his two seasonal nemeses far away from him in the bracket (and he did go 2-2 against Morrison this year), McCormick certainly has a chance to do some damage and I believe he will live up to his seeding and see an All-American finish.
Earning the first of two allocated wild cards, senior Nick Hucke looks to finish his Tiger career with some flair after a tough season and up-and-down career. Coming out of Wisconsin, I actually happened to see Hucke wrestle in the high school finals (don’t ask...I have a REALLY good cable package). Hucke was dominant and I was stoked. And he never quite panned out. He has moved between 149 and 141 (always interesting to see a college wrestler come DOWN in weight in his career) and sits only at 14-14 on the year. He has wrestled well at times this year, with a win over #11 seed Michael Nevinger of Cornell and #11 ranked (at the time) Justin Lavalle of soon-to-be conference foe Old Dominion.
To start, he has drawn #3 seed Michael Mangrum of Oregon State who went 36-4 on the season. If Hucke can pull off the upset, he would not see a ranked wrestler in the next round before actually having a change to see Nevinger again. Wishful thinking? Probably, but also worth noting. Last year, Hucke drew the #1 seed and lost, but did get one win before exiting to LaVelle of ODU. A successful trip for Hucke would be going .500 on the weekend, getting some wins in before he exits.
So far, we’ve talked about two people who should achieve AA status, and someone who we are just hoping will get a win or two. In sophomore Drake Houdashelt, you have someone who could possibly sneak up on people, but who could also go quietly. And it is with this type of wrestler that Mizzou’s team finish destiny may well be determined. Drake had a heck of a season, going 28-9 and sitting in the rankings for much of the year. He stormed to a MAC championship last week with a pin and two major decisions. He has a couple of wins over top-12 wrestlers this year, but Drake really did not face many ranked opponents, going 2-6 on the year (with two of those losses coming to #1 Jordan Oliver). Houdashelt wrestled up at 157 last year, and did make the NCAA’s before going 0-2 with a quick exit.
This year, he will face #11 Andrew Alton of Penn State, who went 26-4 on the year. Beyond Alton is likely the #6 seed Dylan Ness from MN, who though only 14-4, did just win the B1G title. Tough road for Houdashelt, but it is worth noting that if he loses to Alton, his likely opponent in the first wrestle-back would be Daniel Young of Army, who he beat earlier in the year by a 4-3 score. So, is Houdashelt someone who could sneak up and snag a 7th place for the Tigers? He could, but is probably not as likely as some others. But he is someone who will need to win at least a couple of matches before exiting for Mizzou to have a shot at a top-3 team finish.
The weight-class flip-flopping continues with junior Kyle Bradley, who basically switched places with Houdashelt in the off-season, moving from 149 up to 157. Bradley learned by fire last year, as he ended up taking on 15 wrestlers who held a ranking (not including his NCAA opponents, where rankings are basically removed), on his way to a 25-13 finish. The experience of going against that many high-level wrestlers (including Dylan Ness of MN, Eric Grajales of Mich and Steve Santos of Columbia, all of whom Houdashelt might face at 149) paid off for Bradley, as he overcame a 1st round loss to win three straight matches before bowing out. That made him one of only three MU wrestlers to finish the NCAA’s with more wins than losses (Waters and Larson).
This year, Bradley has again faced a healthy dose of ranked opponents, with a 6-2 record (an improvement on last year’s 4-11 tally), including a win over #1 ranked (at the time) and #2 seeded Derek St. John at the Cliff Keen National Duals. At the MAC Championships, he lost 5-2 to David Bonin of UNI, who he had previously gone 1-1 against this year. He has a tough draw with #4 seed James Green of Nebraska, who was on his way to a BIG Championship before #1 seed Jason Welch of Northwestern caught him with a quick pin. Ironically, should Bradley lose his first match, he would potentially face Bonin of UNI in his first wrestle-back. Might make a run tough, but Bradley clearly has the experience to get on a nice streak. I believe he is likelier than Houdashelt to get that surprise run going, but I still think we have people positioned better to get that AA status.