Missouri senior wrestler Le’Roy Barnes had good reason to pout.
With Missouri set to face Northern Iowa in a key Mid-American Conference dual, he’d just beaten his competition as Missouri’s starting 141-pounder, Matt Manley, in an early-season tournament.
The two had now split two matches during the season, but Barnes owned the most recent win and, he hoped, a spot in the Tigers’ lineup.
Instead, Missouri coach Brian Smith stuck with Manley.
“I just felt like Matt was the better matchup against Northern Iowa,” Smith said.
Manley won and then kept winning, picking up three wins against ranked wrestlers in the next two weeks.
Barnes knew after Manley knocked off eighth-ranked Micah Jordan of Ohio State during a dual Dec. 12 that he wasn’t getting back in the lineup — at least not at 141.
“Right at that moment, I said, ‘This kid’s good. We have a really good kid here at ’41 and there’s no point taking him out,’” Barnes said.
He could have pouted and Smith half-expected an emotional and angry conversation when Barnes asked to meet with him in his office.
Barnes had a different idea.
“I knew we were struggling at (157 pounds), so I talked to the coaching staff and said, ‘Hey, I want to go up to ’57,’ ” Barnes said. “Smith was all over it.”
The rest now #TigerStyle lore as Barnes, a Belton graduate who took a two-year detour to Neosho County Community College before arriving at Missouri, took over at 157 and qualified for the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, which begin Thursday at Madison Square Garden in New York, by winning a Mid-American Conference title March 6.
“I see a trend in today’s athletics, where kids go through adversity and want to leave the program or they quit,” Smith said. “You’re just seeing a lot of that — kids that can’t deal with adversity. Yet, this kid, he’s in the dictionary next to adversity. He beat Manley and then I went with Manley the next week and he went on a run. Instead of pouting about it, (Barnes) went up two weights and just keeps knocking people off.”
The night Smith green-lighted a move to 157 pounds, Barnes, 27-8, started lifting weights and increased his calorie intake now that he was freed to pack on close to 20 pounds, a luxury not afforded most wrestlers.
Manley became his biggest cheerleader.
“I would have done the same exact thing if the reverse had happened,” he said.
Of course, when Barnes initially arrived from Neosho County Community College, where Barnes finished third as a freshman and won a 133-pound national title as a sophomore, the relationship was considerably more icy.
“Naturally, with us being competition, we didn’t really ever talk to each other,” Manley said. “As I got to know him more and more, me and Le’Roy kind of became really best friends.”
Smith marveled at Barnes’ willingness to put the team first rather than pout. He also wasn’t surprised given Barnes’ Twitter handle, @ChamponsAdjust.
“That’s perfect for what he did,” Smith said. “As the 141-pounder, I don’t let him have the job, but he goes up to 157 and wins the MAC championship. That’s his attitude in life.”
Manley, who is the fifth seed at 141 for the NCAA tourney, was right there to root Barnes along as he picked off three straight ranked wrestlers en route to the conference title.
“Oh yeah, I was pumped,” Manley said. “I was super excited. … I’m so pumped for him to be in the lineup and doing as well as he’s doing. He’s a real threat at the national tournament. I think a lot of guys are going to overlook him, but no one should be.”
Barnes — who is unseeded and opens against fifth-seeded Dylan Palacio from Cornell on Thursday at nationals — certainly has done that and now he’ll wear a Mizzou singlet on college wrestling’s biggest stage.
Asked about his long and sometimes arduous journey, Barnes said, “It’s not over. I still plan on winning the national title. Up to this point, it’s been an interesting journey, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I think it’s awesome and it builds character. It’s something that I’m proud about.”