COLUMBIA — The Missouri wrestling team is finishing up its most successful season. The Tigers won their first Big 12 Conference championship and are sending all 10 starters to the NCAA Tournament.
Although all the success has led to a surge in confidence as the team heads into the tournament, they've had to overcome a lot of obstacles to get to this point.
The team faced the death of a teammate, an injury to their best wrestler and a 32-9 loss to Oklahoma State in the final regular season dual.
Phillip Perry, who was entering his sophomore season with the Tigers, was killed in a car accident in August. In November, 125-pounder Alan Waters injured his elbow right before the team faced Oklahoma for the first time. As a true freshman last season, Waters had compiled a 39-7 record.
The team could have given up many times this season. But instead, said Tigers coach Brian Smith, overcoming these challenges has prepared his team for the NCAA competition that begins Thursday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
"Overcoming adversity is what the national tournament is all about," Smith said. "The odds are people will lose in the tournament, but the ones who do not let failure distract them will finish the weekend as an All-American."
More than 110,000 people have bought tickets to the three-day tournament, and Smith said he knows it can be easy for a wrestler to get caught up in the atmosphere. His job is to make sure that his wrestlers do not focus on anything except their opponents.
Although Missouri is the only program to have all of its starters earn a bid to the tournament, only Tigers 125-pounder Alan Waters (26-2) and 197-pounder Brent Haynes (22-5) earned seeds at the tournament. They are also the only Tigers who have faced their first-round opponents earlier in the season.
Waters, a No. 3 seed, scored a 19-3 technical fall over Oregon State's Pat Rollins in November. Haynes, a No. 6 seed, scored an 8-0 major decision over Michigan's Max Huntley in the National Duals in February.
The Tigers' 141-pound Nicholas Hucke, 157-pound Drake Houdashelt and heavyweight Devin Mellon are making their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The rest, Waters and Haynes included, are making return appearances.
Senior 174-pounder Dorian Henderson has qualified for the fourth time; 184-pound Mike Larson is making his third appearance; and 133-pound Nathan McCormick, 149-pound Kyle Bradley (149) and 165-pound Zach Toal are all going for the second time.
Hucke and Mike Larson will face the No. 1 seeds in their brackets. Hucke will wrestle against undefeated Kellen Russell of Michigan, and Larson will wrestle against Joe LeBlanc (30-1) from Wyoming.