OKLAHOMA CITY — Two Missouri wrestlers advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA championships Thursday.
Tiger junior Ben Askren, the top-ranked wrestler at 174 pounds remained undefeated at 41-0 with a 6-4 decision over Oklahoma’s Wes Roberts, whom he beat earlier in the Big 12 championship on March 4.
Missouri redshirt freshman Michael Chandler was the underdog in his 157-pound match, but upset No. 4 Matthew Lebe of West Virginia 3-2 in the first match of his first appearance at the NCAA championships.
Unlike Askren, Chandler had lost to Lebe on Dec. 20.
Chandler earned a wildcard tournament berth after a strong finish at the Big 12 Conference tournament, and he gained a Thursday morning bye through the luck of the draw.
However, neither Missouri wrestler sailed through the second round of the tournament’s first day.
Chandler watched the Missouri team struggle all morning. The day began strong when fellow redshirt freshman Austin DeVoe (also wrestling on a wildcard bid) won a 4-3 decision over Eric Stevenson of Oregon State at 125 pounds. But DeVoe lost 10-5 to Cornell’s No. 5 ranked Troy Nickerson in the next round.
A number of Missouri disappointments followed. And Chandler watched, waiting for his turn.
Junior Matt Pell and redshirt freshman Raymond Jordan both suffered losses. Pell, ranked No. 5 at 165-pounds, lost 8-3 to Oregon’s Joey Bracamonte. Jordan, ranked No. 9 at 184-pounds, lost 3-2 to Paul Bradley of Iowa.
“The guy that Raymond lost to was a two-time All-American,” Smith said. “And the guy that Pell lost to, he’s 22-3. He beat Johnny Hendricks (the No. 1 ranked wrestled from Oklahoma State).”
Chandler also faced a favored opponent in the West Virginia senior and NCAA tournament veteran. Lebe, on the other hand, faced someone who was fresh in every way. This was new ground for Chandler. Lebe had wrestled once that morning, dominating Brown’s Michael Savino 11-2. And Chandler was hungry.
“I knew I had to go out there and get the ball rolling,” he said.
After narrowly avoiding a heartbreaker, coach Brian Smith hurried across the wrestling mats coating the floor of Ford Center. He went from one end, where Chandler shook hands with the defeated Lebe, to the other end of the convention center, where Askren’s seemingly-guaranteed bid to become the first national champion
wrestler in Missouri history was becoming a question.
“It’s going to happen that way now. It’s nationals,” Smith said. “That’s why we have the extra coaches.”
Askren struggled against Roberts until the third period. Early in the first period, Roberts became one of the few wrestlers to earn a take-down against Askren this season. Askren trailed 2-1 until the third period.
“I knew it was going to be close because of his style,” Askren said. “He has a really boring style.”
Maintaining his composure, Askren proceeded steadily through the tied match, until 1:28 remained in the third, when he took Roberts to the mat. Seemingly injured, Roberts rolled on the mat holding his ankle. The score was 3-2, in Askren’s favor.
Breathing heavily, he went over to coach Smith while Roberts recooperated.
“We were just talking about what he was going to do, get his lungs back and come back hard,” Smith said. “And that’s what he did.”
Shortly after, Roberts tied the match with an escape and the two wrestlers stood face-to-face, arms wrapped around one another’s necks.
The confidence exuded by Roberts proved ill-advised. Askren, who Smith said is one of the most confident wrestlers at Missouri for good reason, took over the match.
As Roberts fled to the outside of the circle, Askren caught him and lifted him into the air, then slammed him to the mat to score the winning takedown points.
At the wrestling team’s media day on Monday, Smith said that it would be reasonable for the team to return to Columbia with two national champions. He made the comment referring to Matt Pell, a three-time qualifier for the NCAA tournament.
Now that Pell is out of the equation, Chandler has the opportunity to take that honor.
“Tomorrow’s when we find out who the All-Americans are,” Smith said. “We just have to take it one match at a time and see how we do.”
Of the seven Missouri wrestlers that entered the tournament, all remain in the running for All-American honors, except for DeVoe. He was knocked out of the tournament by a 4-1 decision against Matthew Fisk of Lehigh.