The University of Missouri wrestling team has unfinished business.
“This program has not won a national title,” coach Brian Smith said. “It’s the only one in the Big 12 that doesn’t have an individual national title. That’s one of the goals of this program, to have a national champ.”
That goal can be met March 19, when 10 wrestlers will be crowned 2005 NCAA champions.
“We want to have an individual national champ and crack the top 10, which is going to be tough with only taking five guys,” Smith said. “All five guys legitimately have a good chance at making All-Americans. I think (Tyron) Woodley has a legitimate chance, (Ben) Askren’s right in there and (Matt) Pell’s probably on the outside looking in, but if he wrestles well, he could be there.”
Askren (No. 2 at 174 pounds) has Missouri’s best shot at a national championship. Askren finished second last year to Oklahoma State’s Chris Pendleton, and nothing suggests that he will overtake him this year. Pendleton has won all three meetings this season.
“I’m just really frustrated because no one has ever beaten me this many times in my life,” Askren said. “I’ve had a lot of people beat me, but I’ve always been able to come back and beat them within a short amount of time. But this has been really frustrating because it’s been 6-1 now.”
But it’s not a given that Askren and Pendleton will meet for the eighth time.
“We still have to get to that point,” Smith said. “It would be the fifth match, so he’s got to beat four opponents before that. That’s the other thing we have to keep Ben focused on. I guarantee you there will be a No. 1 seed not in the finals. I have never seen all 10 No. 1 seeds make it.”
Smith is not suggesting that Pendleton would fall into that situation, but if that’s the case in other weight classes, it would mean good things for the four other Missouri wrestlers.
Senior Tyron Woodley (No. 5 at 165 pounds) returns to the national stage after a disappointing 2004 season. Woodley has been instrumental in turning the MU wrestling program around, and bringing home the first national title would be a storybook ending.
“This is my last chance to finish the way I would like,” Woodley said. “I think it would be good to finish my career on top, but I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself.”
Although Woodley would like to avoid an overwhelming amount of pressure, senior Brad Cieleski (No. 17 at 157 pounds) is applying pressure on himself. Cieleski will be making his fourth NCAA tournament appearance but his first as a Tiger. His other three came while attending Slippery Rock. Cieleski transferred to Missouri in anticipation of making it to nationals, and he said the Big 12 Conference made him better prepared.
“I definitely feel a little more confident after having the whole year wrestling here,” Cieleski said. “But with this being my last year, it’s a little bit different too, because with this being my last chance, it’s a little more nerve wracking and a little more pressure. But it’s also a little more drive knowing that this is it. So I just go all out and walk away with no regrets.”
Smith has no doubt that his five wrestlers are prepared going into nationals. Besides competing in the toughest conference in the country, the Tigers also faced top-notch national competition at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, at Lehigh and in the Virginia Duals.
But the preparation really began at the Pee Wee level, continued through high school and into college.
“They’ve been preparing their whole lives for this,” Smith said. “Everything comes down to this, and they focus their life on this and this is it, their last time wrestling collegiate style.
“You don’t want to walk off that mat saying, ‘I could have done this, I should have done this.’ You want to walk off and say, ‘I’m completely drained, I took every shot I possibly could and that’s it. I got beat or I won because of that.’ That’s what you want to do as an athlete at the national tournament.”
And that’s exactly what the Missouri wrestlers want to do, too.