COLUMBIA — At every home meet, the Missouri wrestling team is guaranteed to have at least 18 fans.
They’re more than fans, though. The men sitting in the stands are members of the team. They are the freshmen redshirts, who are sitting out of competition this season in order to improve and gain a year of eligibility.
While redshirting is somewhat common in many collegiate sports, especially football, it is the most prevalent in wrestling. Few freshmen ever start on the Missouri wrestling team, something coach Brian Smith attributes to the greater intensity college wrestling requires compared to the high school level.
“They’re adjusting,” Smith said. “I like to redshirt them all because they get adjusted to the first time away from their mom and dad, living on their own. Some of them have never had a roommate … now they have someone in their room, and they have to deal with that.”
These pressures, the same that nearly every college freshman faces, can be exacerbated by the wrestling program. While the high school season runs from November through February, the Missouri team trains from September until March. The long season combined with the grueling nature of practices makes the collegiate season a definite challenge.
“All that stuff is new, and yes, every other student is doing it, but with our practice schedule, going a lot of mornings and afternoons, it’s a lot,” Smith said.
Kyle Bradley, a freshman from St. Peters, agreed.
“You get used to college, for one,” he said. “But more importantly you get used to a new team in a new room.”
Jordan Gagliano, another freshman from Wentzville, said being set apart from the rest of the team and designated as redshirts actually helps the young wrestlers to bond.
“It’s great being a freshman, really,” he said. “We’re all thrown in the dorms together, we’re stuck here over break a couple of times. We kind of just really bond together. And the older guys, they’re stuck here too, and we hang out with them.”
While Smith emphasized that his freshmen might not be prepared to mentally face such a demanding sport, Bradley and Gagliano were more concerned about the physical demands, especially the caliber of the athletes that they must train with each day.
“With the guys every day in the room it’s a battle,” Gagliano said. “I’m basically wrestling the best guys in the country every day, so I know I’m going to get a little bit better and be ready for next year.”
He added that training with the older wrestlers has taught him to accept the ups and downs of the sport.
“You’ve got to work your way up and build the respect of all your teammates,” he said. “Some days you do awesome, and some days you get your teeth kicked in.”
With such a high level of competition, Smith says, the young wrestlers also learn their places.
“A lot of them have been state champs or star wrestlers in the past,” Smith said. “Everybody knew them. Unfortunately and fortunately, our society puts those kids on a pedestal. And now they’re not on a pedestal. And the biggest thing is dealing with that.”
Bradley and Gagliano said their new roles have been hard to accept, but that they should focus on learning rather than worry about not competing.
“In high school, we never really got to sit on the sidelines and watch,” Gagliano said. “We’ve been starting since our freshman year, so it’s a pretty big difference … It’s like you’re training to become a part of the team.”
Bradley said the older wrestlers spend time trying to help the freshmen become better wrestlers.
“What’s so amazing about this year is that you learn something new every day,” he said.
The freshmen will get a few chances to implement what they’re learning. They will compete in five tournaments this season against other wrestlers who are redshirting.
“They may get 25, 30 matches, just as many as the starters,” Smith said. “But it’s at a different level.”
Bradley said these tournaments are enough to inspire him to train hard for the chances he gets.
“It’s different,” he said. “You’re not competing every week. You’re not traveling. You’ll have about 55 matches a year in high school, and then you come here and we have three or four or five tournaments and that’s it. It’s kind of a good thing, because you come here and when you’re not competing all the time and that tournament comes around, it pumps you up … You have fewer opportunities, so you want to do well.”
Gagliano and Bradley said they must remind themselves that by sitting out this year, they are gaining more time to improve and absorb their teammates’ expertise.
“You can just focus on getting better, really, without having the worries about accomplishing anything,” Gagliano said.