When Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith arrived in Columbia 1998, his wrestlers were happy with just making it to the NCAA Wrestling Championships.
It meant a free trip for a few days to far-off places like Albany, New York or nearby cities like Kansas City or St. Louis. But the wrestlers never came close to All-American honors, and Missouri had no chance at finishing in the top ten in the nation, let alone challenging for a spot on the podium.
That mentality has changed during Smith’s 10 seasons at Missouri.
“Now they aren’t just going for a free trip down I-70,” Smith said.
After a third-place finish at the 2007 Nationals, Missouri’s best finish ever, the Tigers proved that they can compete with the traditionally strong wrestling schools like Oklahoma State or Iowa. This year, with seven wrestlers qualified for the Nationals in St. Louis on March 20-22, Smith hopes to duplicate this performance.
Besides points earned for wrestlers placing among the top-eight in their weight class, teams also receive bonus points for matches won by fall, technical fall and major decision. Bonus points were key in Missouri’s third-place finish last year.
“Last year we brought eight out and Matt Pell added another person (with bonus points), so it made it where we had almost ten guys,” Smith said.
With one less competing this year, bonus points become more important.
Even though Missouri will only have seven wrestlers, Smith said that is enough to finish among the top three. There are 13 teams that will have more wrestlers than Missouri, but Smith has seen teams with four or five wrestlers do well.
“If they all become All-Americans and some make the finals, you’re going to be on the stage,” Smith said.
Junior Michael Chandler (157-pounds), sophomore Nicholas Marable (165-pounds), junior Raymond Jordan (184-pounds) and sophomore Max Askren (197-pounds) are all ranked in the top 10 on their weight classes and are expected to have the best shot at All-American honors.
To help the seven wrestlers prepare for the tournament, the Missouri coaches will try to make the athletes as comfortable as possible. With wrestlers competing at different times throughout the three-day tournament, individual preferences are important.
Each wrestler warms-up differently, eats differently and prepares differently mentally, so Smith allows them to do what is most comfortable. He even looks at something as small as which wrestlers feel comfortable sharing a hotel room together.
After training for seven months, Smith wants his wrestlers to be confident, comfortable and focused. There are outside distractions such as family members and friends calling for tickets.
Askren can attest to how pressure can affect a wrestler.
He entered the 2007 Nationals with one loss and the top seeding at 197-pounds. As a freshman, he was already the favorite to win a National Championship. Instead, he was upset in his opening match by Cal State-Bakersfield’s Brandon Halsley, knocking him out of contention for a championship. Then he lost his second match, eliminating him from the tournament.
“I thought about stuff too much and making a big deal about the tournament, but it is just another tournament,” Askren said. “It’s great to win, but it’s not everything.”
This year he is approaching the tournament with a more mellow approach and is no longer worrying about living up to his brother’s, two-time National Champion Ben Askren, legacy.
Based on this experience, Max Askren learned one big lesson, one that his teammates are trying to embrace.
“Do not get nervous,” Askren said.
Senior Tyler McCormick, who is a two-time All American at 133-pounds, gave similar advice.
“Just go out there and have fun,” he said.