As Joey Lavallee leapt into the hands of his dad, Joe, the hands of the Missouri contingent crept upwards in bunches.
The reactions symbolized the history the Missouri wrestling team made on Friday night in front of 18,344 screaming, beaming and believing fans from loads of schools at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
For the first time in school history, Missouri advanced multiple wrestlers to the finals at the NCAA championships. Along with the 157-pound junior in Lavallee, Missouri seniors J’den Cox and Lavion Mayes won semifinal matches under the bright white lights.
“We believe we can do whatever we put our minds to,” Cox said. “If you guys have been watching Mizzou this whole tournament, you’ll see these guys have come to scrap.”
For Lavallee, scrapping over the course of his career is an understatement.
After Friday night’s session, Missouri coach Brian Smith admitted that he asked Lavallee not to come back to the program last year, which was a redshirt year for the Reno, Nev., native.
“I said, ‘You’re just not doing it right. You’re not living right, your redshirt year has been not great and if you want to stay you’ve got to give me 10 things you’re going to change,’ ” Smith said. “He showed up with a haircut the next day.”
Through two days, Missouri ranks fourth as a team behind Penn State, Ohio State and Oklahoma State.
The Tigers also secured five All-American’s on Friday, including Missouri redshirt freshman 141-pounder Jaydin Eierman and Missouri sophomore 165-pounder Daniel Lewis, which ties a school record in a single tournament.
Both Eierman and Lewis won two matches each on Friday night after losing in the quarterfinal round in the morning, which capped off a 7-0 run in the session and propelled them to Saturday’s consolation semifinals.
“It was a good day, a good round,” Smith said. “Any time you go 7-0, it’s a really good round.”
Cox punctuated the night with a 6-2 win over Virginia Tech junior Jared Haught, but Mayes got it started at 149 pounds more than an hour earlier.
From the tunnel, Cox watched Mayes win Missouri’s first semifinal thanks to a takedown of Northern Iowa redshirt-freshman Max Thomsen with just three seconds left.
Said Cox: “That’s my boy.”
Afterward, Mayes spoke of his relatives in attendance and said many of his family elected to go to his graduation rather than championships due to its importance to him.
“That being said, this (is my) last match now in a Missouri singlet, and thinking about it is sobering,” Mayes said. “I can't compete collegiately anymore after this. So, in this moment right now, winning the national title is going to be more important.”
Lavallee followed Mayes, although he didn’t know the senior had won at the time of his match. During Mayes’ win, Lavallee listened to Christian gospel music.
“For me, I can't get too pumped up in a match,” Lavallee said.
But you best believe he was pumped when he garnered a takedown of Cornell senior Dylan Palacio to take a 6-5 lead. He then picked up another, won 8-5, and got a hug from his dad.
“He's been a big role model, big influence,” Lavallee said. “My dad would take me — when I was like a little baby — he’d take me into the high school (wrestling) room. (I was) born and raised in the wrestling room.”
On Saturday, the junior and four other Tiger wrestlers will take the mat in the sport’s biggest room on the sport's biggest stage. And to hear that made Cox smile.
“It almost felt like, (and it’s) cheesy, but it’s like, ‘we’re all in this together,’ ” Cox said, and then referenced High School Musical. “… Going into tomorrow, it’s the same thing. I’m just going to go out there with a passion and drive to go after my dream and to make Mizzou history.”