COLUMBIA – The smack of the racquetball hitting against the mat on the wall punctuates their laughter. They are playing a game seen far more often on junior high playgrounds than inside Division I wrestling rooms but on this day, and as they do on most days, the Missouri wrestling team is playing “wall ball” before practice.
Someone fires the ball against the mat on the wall, and it caroms to Dom Bradley, a junior captain that is ranked No. 3 nationally in the heavyweight class. Unfortunately his fielding skills aren’t quite as impressive as his wrestling prowess, because the ball glances off his hand, rolling away. If another player can pick up the ball and whip it against the mat before Bradley can touch that mat, consequences will ensue.
No. 11 Missouri vs. No. 10 Illinois
WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: Jon Davis Wrestling Center, Edwardsville, Ill.
Tickets: Sold Out
Watch: mutigers.tv (All-Access Subscribers Only)
Projected Lineups (MU Wrestlers Listed First):
125 pounds: Alan Waters (Fr.) vs. Logan Arlis (Fr.)
133: No. 24 Nathan McCormick (So.) vs. No. 17 B.J. Futrell (So.)
141: No. 12 Todd Schavrien (Sr.) vs. No. 1 Jimmy Kennedy (Sr.)
149: No. 28 Kyle Bradley (Fr.) vs. No. 31 Eric Terrazas (Jr.)
157: No. 15 Danny Gonsor (Jr.) vs. Kyle Dooley (So.)
165: No. 12 Zach Toal (Fr.) vs. No. 17 Conrad Polz (So.)
174: No. 14 Dorian Henderson (Jr.) OR Patrick Wright (Jr.) vs. No. 3 Jordan Blanton (Jr.)
184: Henderson or Wright vs. No. 30 Tony Dallago (Fr.)
197: Jake Glore (So.) vs. Mario Gonzalez (Fr.)
HWT: No. 3 Dom Bradley (Jr.) vs. Pat Walker (So.)
Note: Whoever does not wrestle at 174 between Henderson and Wright will wrestle at 184.
Bradley sprints forward, trying doggedly to reach the mat before a teammate can fling the ball, but that smacking sound of ball against mat spells out his fate.
He stands with his face against the mat and his rear end toward his teammates, a few of which will take turns throwing the racquetball at him as hard as they can from 20 feet away. Make no mistake, when they succeed, it’s painful.
“More than a takedown,” Bradley says, laughing. “That ball definitely hurts.”
The game is one way the No. 11 Tigers are keeping things loose during their preparations for their season-opening dual match against No. 10 Illinois on Friday at the Jon Davis Wrestling Center in Edwardsville, Ill.
Minutes after the wall ball game concludes, coach Brian Smith gathers his team and preaches the importance of staying calm, tempering their excitement and sticking to the processes they have been practicing since July.
It won’t be easy in what is likely to be a raucous environment in Edwardsville. The event is sold out and the crowd will be a genuine factor, especially for the five new starters that will be in the lineup for the Tigers.
“This is why these guys come to a program like Missouri,” Smith said. “When you put on that black and gold singlet it is going to matter to a lot of people.”
The job of leading a team that has just eight upperclassmen on a 41-man roster will fall largely upon Bradley and senior Todd Schavrien, who is one of three returning Tigers that made an appearance in the NCAA championships last season. The two are approaching the role in different ways.
“I don’t really see myself as a leader, but I know that I am one,” Bradley said. “I lead through my actions and I'm trying to get myself better.”
Schavrien is far more outgoing and outspoken, even blogging on mutigers.com in a feature called “Thursdays With Todd.”
“I kind of like it (being a leader),” Schavrien said. “I am an example of Tiger style wrestling, and I can help the younger guys who haven’t been here as long.”
Despite losing 2010 national champion Max Askren and 2009 national champion Mark Ellis from a squad that finished 10th nationally, expectations are high for a Missouri squad that features five new starters. Both Smith and Schavrien said the team’s goal is to win a team national championship.
“The ranking right now doesn’t matter, our goal isn’t to be 11th,” Smith said. “We’re not going to be happy with that.”
“The plaques on the wall show that what this program does is put people on the podium,” Schavrien said. “If we trust the program and our coaches we will have success.”
Friday’s match against the Illini will provide a quick barometer to where the Tigers stand, but Smith isn’t concerned about starting the season against a strong opponent.
“With duals, I want to wrestle tough people,” he said. “It’s better for NCAA qualifying to wrestle against these teams.”
Smith doesn’t lie. Of the Tigers’ 18 duals opponents in 2010, 12 are at least receiving votes in the USA Today/NWCA Preseason coaches’ poll.
Despite their youth, the Tigers see their chemistry as a strong reason they will be able to navigate their tough path.
“Everyone in that room makes each other better,” Smith said. “This is one of the top two or three teams in my 13 years here in terms of chemistry.”
Judging by the boyish enthusiasm with which they whip the racquetball around before practice, the Tigers have a group capable of achieving their goals.