Tigers expect success

Thursday, March 18, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:21 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Before every wrestling tournament Missouri coach Brian Smith does a little shopping.

After he gets a shopping list, Smith buys numerous items for his team. The list usually includes bananas, power bars and Jeremy Spates’ cinnamon Pop-Tarts.

For the NCAA Tournament at Savvis Center in St. Louis, Smith will shop for five.

Senior Kenny Burleson, 31-4 at 157, won the Big 12 Conference Tournament on March 6 to qualify. Ben Askren, 29-4 at 174, and 197-pounder Jeff Foust also won conference titles. Redshirt freshman Matt Pell’s second place at 184 qualified him for the tournament. Spates (149) received a wild-card bid.

The three-day tournament starts at 11 a.m. today.

Smith said he wants nothing but the best from his team.

“We’re taking five quality athletes out there,” Smith said. “I know we’re expecting five national champs.”

The Tigers had a successful season with a 15-3 record and achieved their highest rank, third, in the 60-year history of the program, but Smith said none of it matters anymore.

“Everyone starts off with an equal record,” Smith said. “It doesn’t matter what your record is going into it. Every year there’s upsets. Every year there’s great performances.

“These five have been very consistent all year and have beaten some of the best in the country and plan on doing well out there.”

Becoming a champion won’t be easy. Each weight class has 32 of the best wrestlers in the nation. Smith said a key to winning is consistency.

“Really the people that perform the best at the NCAAs are the ones that every time the whistle blows they’re wrestling with urgency,” Smith said. “You can’t go out there and try and just squeak by matches. You have to give everything.

“I always tell kids, ‘Leave everything on the mat.’ So when you walk off the mat you know if you were beaten, you were beaten by a better opponent at that moment.”

To prepare the wrestlers, Smith set up practices to simulate the matches they would have to compete in during the tournament.

Burleson said he hopes he has learned from his mistakes at last year’s tournament. Burleson did not place after losing in his fourth match of the meet.

“I think my biggest mistake last year was I took an opponent too lightly in the wrestlebacks,” Burleson said. “This year I know I’m in the national tournament and everybody is competitive and I’ll refocus for every match.”

Burleson and the rest of the team will receive help from a large hometown crowd.

“You still have to show up and wrestle your best,” Smith said. “It is nice when you have a big section cheering for you.”

Smith emphasized the importance of the tournament for each of the wrestlers.

“These guys have been preparing their whole lives for this,” Smith said.

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