A great season for the Tigers

COLUMBIA --- What a great season the Missouri Tigers are having.

No, not those Tigers.

Same sports season, entirely different team.

While the basketball team continues to flounder like a flopping fish dying on the bank of a pond, the wrestling Tigers are putting together another great season.

Ranked No. 9 in the nation. Six wrestlers ranked in the Top 20 nationally, four ranked in the Top 10, one ranked No. 3, one ranked No. 1.

And they're doing it with five freshmen in the lineup.

"This team has kind of a chip on their shoulder," Missouri coach Brian Smith said. "They're young, but they want to prove that they're pretty, darn tough.

"I'm always optimistic about this program. I put everything into it and I know my coaching staff does, too, as well as the administration and everyone who works with this program."

It's a great time to be a Tiger, you just have to look in the right place.

Let's start at the top --- junior Drake Houdashelt is ranked No. 1 in the country at 149 pounds.

"He's having an amazing year," said Smith. "If he sticks with his game plan and wrestles with the intensity he brings to the mat every day in practice and every day in matches, he'll be right there.

"I don't see anything holding him back, I think he'll be a national champ."

Strong words.

Houdashelt, a two-time state champion at Ft. Zumwalt West, is 31-1 this season and 90-20 in his college career. He tied a school record for major-decision wins last year (12) on his way to a sixth-place finish in the NCAA Tournament.

"He's one of those kids that you dream about having as a coach," Smith said. "We're just fortunate to have him. He's doing the right things, he's a leader to this young team, and the team looks up to him. He just does everything right.

"We have a philosophy called TigerStyle and he lives it every day, on and off the mat."


"TigerStyle ... the first thing we teach them is you have to believe," Smith said. "Believe in the things we teach you, believe in the people who are supporting you, believe in yourself.

"From there, you go on to being able to compete, and we want our guys to compete in everything. If you're going to go to class, and our guys do, why not get an A? If you're going to write a paper, why not do a great paper?

"If you're in the practice room, compete at the highest level. It's competing in life. Some days, we just compete in kickball in the practice room and we have guys going 100 mph, and I have to break them up.

"But that's the kind of mentality I want in our program."

Smith continued.

"Then the third level of the program is to get one more in everything, everybody, one more rep in the weight room, give a little bit more --- we call it "One More" --- then we're going to have success.

"Then the fourth level, when you walk on that mat, you expect to win and have that expectation to win at everything. That's what TigerStyle is all about.

"That philosophy, when they believe in it, starts to pay off."

Great stuff.

Here are the guys who are making this happen, including hometown (high school, if from Missouri), season record and national ranking:

* 125 pounds --- Barlow McGhee, fr., Rock Island, Ill. (20-8, 30)

* 133 --- Matt Manley, RS fr., Perry, Okla. (22-11, 22)

* 141 --- Lavion Mayes, RS fr., Mascoutah, Ill. (25-11, 18)

* 149 --- Drake Houdashelt, jr., Ft. Zumwalt West (31-1, 1)

* 157 --- Joseph LaValle, fr., Reno, Nev. (24-8, 18)

* 165 --- Zach Toal, sr., Sidney, Ohio (17-7, 12)

* 174 --- Mike England, jr., Centerville, Iowa (16-12, 25)

* 184 --- John Eblen, jr., Kansas City Park Hill (20-7, 14)

* 197 --- J'den Cox, fr., Columbia Hickman (30-2, 2)

* 285 --- Devin Mellon, jr., Lawson (22-9, 22)

In their high school careers, this Terrific Ten combined to win 23 individual state championship --- all 10 captured state crowns in their senior seasons.

Two won four state titles --- LaVallee and Cox, who Jefferson City fans know very well.

"I've watched J'den for a long time, I even coached him in youth football," Smith said. "There are a few kids in your lifetime that you hope you can coach, and he's one of them.

"He's just a special athlete, a special person."

Cox finished his career at Hickman with a silly record of 205-3 --- not to mention winning his four state titles at four different weight classes.

Now, he's ranked third in the nation at 197 pounds. True freshmen at this weight class just don't do that.

"We thought we'd redshirt him," Smith said. "But as the preseason progressed, he was beating the best guys we had, All-Americans. There was just no way we could redshirt this kid, and he's responded in the best way.

"All he wants to do is learn and get better and better."

Take this the way it's intended, the best way possible --- Cox is a freak.

"There's no doubt," Smith said. "He's just so talented and he brings so much intensity in every match you watch. People just step back and say, 'Wow, did you see what he just did?'

"That makes it fun and it's great for our program."

Redshirt freshman Cole Baumgartner (133 pounds), a 2012 graduate of Jefferson City High School, hasn't competed in a dual, but he has compiled a 16-9 record in tournaments. (Schools can compete multiple wrestlers in the same weight class in tournaments.)

"Cole's having a great year; he's just an outstanding young man," Smith said. "He made the finals of two or three tournaments ... he's just doing unbelievably well. You talk about living TigerStyle, he is.

"He's doing it the right way."

As is Smith.

In his 16th year at the MU helm, it's the 13th straight winning season for Smith, who's 199-90-3 with the Tigers. He's coached 18 All-Americans to 31 top-eight NCAA finishes, and three Tigers to four national titles --- including two by by Ben Askren (2006-07).

The Tigers finished this dual season at 10-2 (7-1 MAC) with a 24-9 win at Kent State on Sunday.

(Of note: Kent State's 184-pounder, Sam Wheeler, ranked 13th in the nation, did not compete. Wheeler was suspended indefinitely from the program for his anti-gay tweets directed toward Michael Sam.)

The Tigers won't compete again until they return to Kent State for the MAC Championships on March 8-9, before competing in the NCAA Championships on March 20-22 in Oklahoma City, Okla.

And if you wondering, why the MAC? Because Missouri is the only team in the SEC to have a wrestling program, so it had to look elsewhere.

Then why not just stay in the Big 12?

"The Big 12 didn't want a Missouri team," Smith said.


"But the MAC has turned into the second-best conference in the country behind the Big Ten," Smith continued, "so it's turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Good for our team, good for our program.

"I think our program is kicking into high gear. We continue to get top recruits ... we have a high expectations, and we always want it to be that way."

Missouri fans should be paying attention to this Tiger team, not the other one.