Season of optimism for Tigers

Led by Ben Askren, the No. 3 Missouri wrestling team has high expectations.
Wednesday, November 8, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:40 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The big boss is coming.

That is the message Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith sent to his team prior to Monday’s practice describing the day’s visitor. The “big boss,” of course, is Missouri athletic director Mike Alden, who dropped by to observe the team’s workout and practice facilities on the fourth floor of Hearnes Center.


From left, Missouri wrestlers Amond Prater, Zack Schuller, Tim Kephart, and Tony Pescaglia run sprints at the end of wrestling practice at the Hearnes Center on Tuesday. The team is ranked No. 3 in the country coming into this season. (SARA DEBOLD/Missourian)

The attention is nothing new for this team, though. In fact, attention has grown nationally for this program. It enters this season ranked as the No. 3 team in collegiate wrestling. A potentially nerve-racking situation, however, does not seem to have negatively affected this team. Already an outgoing and close-knit bunch, the Tigers have dealt with the attention together.

The grapplers warmed up for practice jogging and doing crab walks across the mat to the tune of “Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash. Members recited the infamous song about a man who used his effeminate name to help toughen himself up. An unorthodox, yet appropriate song that suits this team.

“These guys hang out together outside of here and it’s very important to do that,” Smith said. “It’s important that you like each other in order to get through a season as long as this one, and these guys genuinely do.”

The easygoing nature of this year’s squad starts with the team’s most visible member. Senior Ben Askren, the Tiger star at 174 pounds, exemplifies the lighthearted attitude of the squad. The curly frock that was cut following last season is starting to resurface as the dual season approaches. Chomping on a pretzel sticks and giving out playful headlocks before practice, Smith points to the defending national champion as one of his better leaders thus far.

“He and others have been great helping out with the younger guys,” Smith said. “The team is able to hang out with each other outside but when they get in here, the older ones practice and teach the team how to get better.”

While easygoing seems to describe this Tiger team, they are taking the upcoming campaign with a determined outlook. Despite being led by Askren, last season’s Dan Hodge Award Winner, which is the wrestling equivalent of the Heisman trophy, Smith is adamant that his team does not begin and end with the senior. In his opinion, the team would not be so highly touted if they were just one wrestler.

“We wouldn’t be ranked No. 3 in the country if we didn’t have a good, all-around team,” Smith said. “Ben is a great wrestler but we have great depth from our other wrestlers.”

Askren agreed with his coach, saying that the team is deep with talent. Returning All-Big 12 Conference senior Matt Pell and All-American Tyler McCormick were among those that Smith and Askren noted. Askren gave special mention to redshirt sophomore Raymond Jordan, who he believes has the skills to win a national championship.

“I tell him everyday that he can win a national title — now I just have to get him to believe it,” Askren said. “He is a great wrestler, he has a lot of skills, he likes to learn, he is strong and fast.”

Depth will be needed once conference competition starts. Smith did not hesitate in calling the Big 12 the best wrestling conference in America and said how a team fares in the conference usually is a good indicator of how they will do on the national scene.

“The interesting thing about this conference is that even if you finish in fifth place in the Big 12, you probably still have a shot to win the national title because all the teams are so talented,” Smith said.

There is no doubt within the Tiger mat that the team has what it takes to warrant the attention they have received in the preseason and make it continue throughout the season.

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