The University of Missouri wrestling team was at a crossroads.
Making a comeback to the Big 12 championships after a dominant run in the Mid-America Conference, the Tigers struggled in the quarterfinals in Tulsa, Okla., winning just four of 10 games.
Tigers coach Brian Smith knew his team was in shock. But Smith, in his 25th season as a Division I coach, also knew what to say next.
“Our guys were miserable,” he recalls. “But as I reminded them, this round was not the last round of the tournament. And, thank goodness, we bounced back strong.
The ninth-ranked Tigers nationally came back in the next session to win 14 of their next 16 games and then won the tag team title. The Tigers have now won 11 consecutive conference tournament titles; they captured the Big 12 crown in 2012, then clinched the next nine MAC championships before this year’s victory in a return to the Big 12.
That weekend, Keegan O’Toole (165 pounds) took first place while Allan Hart (141), Peyton Mocco (174) and Jeremiah Kent (184) all finished second. The Rocky brothers (197) and heavyweight Zach Elam each placed third.
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Josh Edmond (149) and Jarrett Jacques (157) finished fifth, while Edwardsville High product Noah Surtin (125) and Connor Brown (133) finished seventh.
All but Brown will compete in the NCAA championships, which take place Thursday through Saturday in Detroit.
O’Toole, who ranked third at the NCAA last year in St. Louis, enters the competition at 20-0 and seeded second behind Cal Poly’s Evan Wick (17-0) at 165 pounds. Wick, who started his career in Wisconsin, is a four-time national qualifier who placed third in 2018 and fourth in 2019.
Rocky Elam of the Tigers (19-5) is seeded seventh at 197. A year ago, after a first-round loss, Elam rallied to win five straight games and found himself the fifth medalist in St. Louis.
Mizzou’s other seeds include No. 18 Surtin (19-7) at 125; Hart No. 9 (15-5) at 141; #26 Edmond (17-9) at 149; no. 25 Jacques (18-12) at 157; No. 11 Mocco (15-5) at 175; Kent No. 17 (17-7) at 184; and No. 16 Zach Elam (15-5) at heavyweight.
“We have struggled in two major tournaments – the Southern Scuffle and the Big 12 – and won both,” said Smith, who was named Big 12 Coach of the Year. us before the NCAA because we’ve been through adversity and we’ve fought. In 25 years, I think this NCAA tournament is the deepest I’ve ever seen. It will be great for the fans, but it will be a real chore for coaches and competitors.
“Guys will have to be ready from the first round.”
The Tigers have finished seventh or better in the last six NCAA tournaments. There was no NCAA competition in 2020 due to COVID-19, and crowds were severely limited last year here.
“It’s been three years since we’ve had so many people and this effervescence in the building. I can’t wait,” Smith said. “It’s that kind of intensity that really makes our sport special.”
More zone connectionsOther NCAA Tournament competitors with local ties include:
Althoff High product Zac Braunagel (15-7) is a No. 9 seed at 184 after bouncing back from a first-round loss to win five straight Big Ten championship games for Illinois. This is Braunagel’s third straight trip to the NCAA. He will be joined in Detroit by his Illini teammates Justin Cardani (12-9), who is ranked 27th at 125, Justin Byrd (21-3) who is ranked seventh at 133, and heavyweight Luke Luffman (15-10 ), a No. 14 seed.
• North Carolina State freshman Kai Orine was the 2019 Post-Dispatch All-Metro Wrestler of the Year after finishing third as a Seckman High freshman with three consecutive state titles. He is 15-5 and is ranked 15th at 133.
• Jaydin Eierman of Iowa (16-1) is the second seed with 141. A four-time undefeated state champion at Tolton High in Colombia, Eierman started his career at Mizzou, placing fifth, fourth and third in the national level before being transferred. With the Hawkeyes last year, he finished second nationally at 141.