COLUMBIA — Josh Wagner’s future as a wrestler was out of his control.
As a senior, the Big 12 Conference tournament could have been his last time on the mat. To automatically qualify for the NCAA Wrestling Championships on March 20-22 in St. Louis, he had to finish third in the 149-pound weight class.
He finished fourth.
Wagner’s only hope was that the Big 12 coaches selected him as one of eight wild cards for nationals. Even though Wagner had been ranked in the top 20 of the coaches poll all season, he was not sure that he would earn one.
“I was a little worried because you never know what the other coaches are thinking,” Wagner said.
Luckily for Wagner, they were thinking that he deserved to compete.
Before meeting with the other coaches, Missouri coach Brian Smith did not know if Wagner would be selected. Wagner had a 19-8 record, but he had up-and-down performances throughout the season, including losses to three unranked opponents. Then he went 1-2 as the No. 2 seed at the Big 12 tournament, giving coaches a reason to doubt him.
While the coaches convened to discuss wild cards, Wagner joined his parents, teammates and their families in the hotel lobby to eat and hang out. Then former Missouri wrestler Ben Askren, a two-time national champion, approached Wagner and told him that he had no need to worry. Askren had just spoken with Smith, and Wagner had earned a wildcard.
Wagner actually felt more relaxed at the hotel while waiting to find out if his wrestling career was over than during his matches earlier in the day.
This was the second consecutive year that Wagner stumbled at the Big 12 tournament after earning the second seed and needed a wildcard to advance to Nationals. The biggest problem, he said, were nerves.
“I think of the worst-case scenario,” he said. “I think, what if I go two and out and don’t make Nationals? Then I feel like 20 years of wrestling came down to a huge disappointment. You can’t think of things like that and I did.”
Unlike the Big 12 tournament, the NCAA nationals do not make Wagner nervous at all. He will not be seeded and there are not outside expectations from the wrestling community for him to win a championship.
“It’s a totally different feeling,” Wagner said. “There is no pressure now, especially with it being my senior year, I just have to go out there and wrestle my best.”
Wagner finished 2-2 at the 2007 NCAA meet and said that he had mental lapses throughout his matches. He hopes to avoid those this year by focusing on one period at a time and not the entire match.
Junior Raymond Jordan also found himself in a similar position as Wagner after the conference tournament.
As the second seed at 184 pounds and the defending conference champion, Jordan was expected to make the finals. Instead, he finished fourth, also needing a wildcard to advance to nationals.
Unlike Wagner, Jordan did not need to worry about earning a wildcard. With a 21-2 record, Smith said that Jordan was assured a spot. However, Jordan was still disappointed with his performance.
“It wasn’t easy at first but I’ve done it now,” Jordan said about getting over the tournament.
Jordan admits that his mind was not fully on wrestling. He was dealing with an undisclosed personal issue, and said that it might have affected his wrestling.
After talking with his family and receiving advice, Jordan has now turned all his attention on Nationals. Jordan said his fourth-place finish at the Big 12 meet was a wake up call.
“I have to go out every match and be aggressive,” Jordan said. “If you sit back and wait, bad things will happen. It’s better to have it happen at the Big 12 tournament than the National tournament.”