Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith sensed it coming. He could see the special qualities Daniel Lewis exhibited during his redshirt season last year and knew he’d shine upon cracking the Tigers’ lineup.
“He was a top kid in high school, so when he came in the room last year he was beating kids that were pretty good,” Smith said.
Lewis, a Blue Springs graduate, hasn’t disappointed as Missouri’s starter at 165 pounds this season.
He’s ranked No. 4 nationally by Intermat, No. 5 by WIN Magazine and No. 6 in the Open Mat and FloWrestling polls with a 22-4 record, including a 6-3 record against ranked opponents.
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“Last year, it was a lot of growth,” Lewis said. “I knew I was learning and figuring this whole college thing out. This year, all that’s gone. I’m the guy. Big things are expected.”
Lewis, who knocked off eighth-ranked Austin Wilson 4-0 in the Tigers’ National Championship Dual Series showdown Sunday at Nebraska, is 17-2 since Dec. 4.
His only losses during that span came against No. 2-ranked Bo Jordan of Ohio State on a 6-4 decision and versus top-ranked Alex Dieringer of Oklahoma State on a 4-3 decision.
That puts Lewis squarely in the hunt for a national title with the NCAA championships less than a month away.
“I’m still a freshman, so I’ve got a lot of potential and a lot of growth still to do,” he said. “But to be right there right now, I feel great about it. I’m super excited for the end of the season.”
Smith has no doubt that Lewis — whose biceps are tattooed with the Latin phrase “ad astra per aspera,” which means “to the stars through hardship” — is a championship contender.
“He’s a kid that can win an NCAAs if he has a good tournament, but he’s got to cut little mistakes out,” Smith said.
Lewis said he learned a lot from losses against Jordan and Dieringer and hopes to put that knowledge to use during the NCAA Championships, which begin March 17 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“All the national champions on the wall here at Missouri, I don’t look at the things they did necessarily, but I focus on the end goal,” Lewis said. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that I can win a title. I enjoyed wrestling the No. 1 and 2 guys. It showed me where I’m at I really showed what I’m capable of.”
Among the Tigers’ regular starters, only heavyweight James Romero has more than Lewis’ eight pins and only junior 197-pounder J’den Cox and senior 157-pounder LeRoy Barnes have scored bonus points more often than Lewis.
Of course, he believes he’s only beginning to scratch the surface of his potential.
“I put probably more pressure on myself than the team or any of the coaches,” Lewis said. “I know in my heart and my mind, I’m the go-to guy. For me, it’s my duty, it’s my job to go out there and do what I’m capable of and what I’m here for.”
Lewis’ win against Wilson helped turn the tide for the Tigers in a 19-14 win against the Cornhuskers.
Missouri trailed 10-6, including junior 149-pounder Lavion Mayes’ first loss of the season, before Lewis took the mat.
Senior 174-pounder Blaise Butler rallied from behind in the third period for a 7-5 win that gave the Tigers the lead before sophomore 184-pounder Willie Miklus upset sixth-ranked TJ Dudley with a takedown at the final buzzer.
That meant a win by junior 197-pounder J’den Cox would deliver a victory for Missouri. He proceeded to dismantle 10th-ranked Aaron Studebaker 16-7 with seven takedowns en route to career win No. 100.
Cox is the 24th wrestler in Tigers history to join the century club.
Sophomore 125-pounder Barlow McGhee and junior 141-pounder Matt Manley also won matches as Missouri topped Nebraska 19-14.