The huffs and puffs from a post-match workout were telling, but J’den Cox’s face was even more telling.
The cringes, the head-hanging — all the pain was evident following Missouri’s Senior Night loss on Feb. 12. Not to mention, it came at the hands of Mid-American Conference opponent Northern Iowa, which marked the Tigers’ first loss to a league foe since Cox was a freshman three years ago.
Hence the reason Cox, an Olympic bronze medalist, and his Missouri Tigers are so ready to return to the mat at the MAC Wrestling Championships this weekend in Cedar Falls, Iowa — yes, the home of the Northern Iowa Panthers.
“I’m just ready to get on the bus,” Missouri coach Brian Smith said Wednesday. “We’re ready.”
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Missouri sophomore 165-pounder Daniel Lewis is no exception.
Lewis, who was defeated by way of a technical fall to Northern Iowa sophomore Bryce Steiert in the stunning 25-10 loss at the Hearnes Center, said that the focus in practice since the loss has been “on-point.” He also added that these championships “feel a little bit more like redemption.”
“Because it’s in their house,” Lewis said. “We want to take what we think is ours, and that’s a tournament conference championship.”
To do so, Missouri will have to be ready to face the grind that is the two-day event, which begins on Saturday at 11 a.m.
Smith isn’t worried, though.
The coach, who is seeking his fifth-straight MAC tournament title and sixth-straight conference title (one came in the Big 12), said Wednesday that for the first time this year, Missouri is “physically and mentally all 100 percent.”
The Tigers are also thinking about the forthcoming matches 100 percent of the time, although not in terms of the bracket. Smith said he doesn’t show the guys the specific matchups, and freshman 141-pounder Jaydin Eierman said he doesn’t want to see them.
“I believe you have to beat the best to be the best, so it doesn’t really matter where I am (in the bracket),” Eierman said. “I just have to go out there and do my job.”
Cox is confident Eierman will do just that.
“Just let him be him, let him do what he has to do,” Cox said, “He’ll do great things.”
As for Cox, he will be seeking to match former Tiger Drake Houdashelt’s mark as a four-time conference championship.
Eierman, along with Cox, Lewis, senior 149-pounder Lavion Mayes and junior 157-pounder Joey Lavallee are all top seeds for the tournament.
As is often the case with both losses and wins, Smith has been faced with the task of helping the team reload and regain confidence after the Northern Iowa dual.
Specifically, Smith referenced junior 125-pounder Barlow McGhee as a wrestler that needed to improve, which is why McGhee, along with Missouri freshman 174-pounder Dylan Wisman, traveled to the U.S. Collegiate Championships in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Feb. 19.
There, McGhee beat Northern Iowa senior Dylan Peters, who he’d lost to just week prior.
“(Barlow is) coming into this tournament with a couple wins under his belt,” Smith said. “I just see it in his practice — he’s just wrestling better. … He’s ready to go.”
Smith sees that the entire team is itching to go.
“They’re sick of the practice room. They want to get up there and compete,” Smith said. “I was telling somebody — it’s like putting a horse in the gate. It wants to get out of the gate and I haven’t opened the gate yet.
“They’re anxious, they want to get going, they want to battle.”
Mid-American Conference wrestling championships
Where: Cedar Falls, Iowa (Northern Iowa is host school)
When: Saturday (11 a.m.) and Sunday (noon)