COLUMBIA — Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith spent all week telling his wrestlers that he needed them to “be his David.”
On Feb. 24, the Tigers lost a dual meet at Oklahoma State 32-9, and the team had their confidence shaken as they began to prepare for the Big 12 Conference tournament.
1. Missouri, 77 points
2. Oklahoma State, 73 points
3. Oklahoma, 60.5 points
4. Iowa State, 21 points
After the loss, Smith said he told his team the story of David and Goliath. He told them that David went with confidence when he faced the giant.
The Tigers did not appear shaken Saturday at Hearnes Center, winning the program's first Big 12 title. After the team raised its championship trophy in the air, the team went up to Smith and said, “We are your David.”
Missouri led Oklahoma State by 10 points in the team standings entering the night's final match between heavyweights Matt Gibson of Iowa State and Austin Marsden of Oklahoma State. A win by Gibson would have clinched the victory for the Tigers, but a loss would have given the win to the Cowboys.
The audience, filled mostly with Tiger fans, quickly shifted their allegiance to the Cyclones.
“There sure weren’t this many ISU fans cheering when the match started,” one Missouri fan said as Gibson nearly pinned Marsden in the second period.
Gibson's 8-3 victory received the loudest ovation of the night.
Even Smith could not contain himself. He looked as engaged in that match as he was for any match involving his own team members. He was grabbing Tigers assistant coach Matt Pell whenever the match grew intense.
When Gibson’s arm was raised in victory, Smith jumped in the air and began congratulating his coaching staff.
As well as winning the team championship, the Tigers had four individual champions. Alan Waters (125 pounds), Drake Houdashelt (157), Zach Toal (165) and Mike Larson (184) each won their first individual conference titles.
Hearnes Center had been set up to look more like the Staples Center. The lights in the stands were dimmed before the start of the finals, and a bright spotlight beamed down on the mat. Each wrestler was introduced with smoke machines and flashing lights around them. Fireworks went off beside them as they ran from the locker room to the mat.
Afterward, while the team took turns taking pictures with the championship trophy, questions about the program's future remained.
Missouri has left the Big 12 and joined the Southeastern Conference — which does not feature wrestling competition — and there has been uncertainty all year as to what the Tigers wrestling program plans to do next season.
There is speculation about a new conference, joining an existing conference or Missouri wrestling becoming independent. In a teleconference earlier this week, Smith said that he hoped to have all the questions figured out by the end of the March.
But the team was living in the moment Saturday.
“Without knowing what conference we are going to be in next year, to potentially go out on top feels really good,” Larson said.
Missouri will enjoy its victory through the weekend but go back to work Monday. The Tigers start training for the NCAA Tournament set for March 15 in St. Louis.