Photo: Shane Epping, Mizzou Athletics
By JARED BELL
When Lavion Mayes entered college, the Mascoutah graduate was admittedly not very good on top.
“I go to every practice and I’m trying to learn the stuff,” Mayes said, “but when you have the coaches in the room yelling at you or when fans are all around you yelling, ‘Score more, score more,’ well, I can’t always do that, but I’m trying.”
However, through five years of work at Missouri, that’s all changed, and Mayes has showed how far he’s come at this weekend’s NCAA Championships.
In both his second round and quarterfinal matches, the 149-pound Mayes used riding time as keys to victories, including in his 4-2 quarterfinal victory in which he rode Virginia Tech’s Solomon Chishko for the entire second period of a scoreless match.
“That’s the difference this year, ‘Wanting to ride,’” Mayes said. “Missouri is known for their top game. We’ve been extremely dominant from the top position.”
So far in the tournament, Mayes has ridden his way to the semifinals.
After the four-time NCAA qualifier won his first-round match by an 8-2 decision, he earned a hard-fought 2-1 tiebreaker victory against NIU’s Steve Bleise in Thursday’s second round.
Tied at 1 after seven minutes of regulation and the sudden-victory overtime period, Mayes was on top during the first riding period and rode Bleise for the full 30 seconds.
Bleise then conceded an escape during the second riding period and the point proved to be the difference.
“In the rideouts, that’s where you have to want it,” Mayes said. “I looked at (Missouri head coach) coach (Brian) Smith and he was like, ‘OK, let’s do this.’ I rode him out the first 30 seconds and I looked over at coach and was like, ‘OK, I got this.’ He opted to go for the takedown in the last 30 seconds even though he hadn’t gotten one all match.”
In the quarterfinal against Chishko, Mayes rode his opponent for the entire second period to keep the match scoreless. Then in the third period, he won the match.
“It’s extremely tiring but a good mindset to have throughout the season,” Mayes said of being willing to ride out an opponent. “When it’s a 0-0 match and they ask me, ‘What are you going to do Lavion?’ I can now say, ‘I’m going to ride him.’”
The improved skill has already led Mayes to his third straight All-American honors regardless of what happens the rest of the way. He’s become Missouri’s fifth three-time All-American.
In Friday night’s semifinals, the No. 3-seeded Mayes will face No. 7 Northern Iowa’s Max Thomsen (30-5). Mayes defeated Thomsen by a 6-5 decision in last week’s MAC Tournament final.
“The situation now is win at any cost,” Mayes said. “If I’m going to ride then I’m going to ride. I don’t care about winning by six or seven points if I can get a one-point win and have it guaranteed by having three minutes of riding time.”
If Mayes does win and advances to Saturday night’s national championship match, he’ll do so in front of his friends and family who made the short 30-minute drive to St. Louis.
“I’m wrestling, so me being home doesn’t mean anything in terms of me being home,” Mayes said. “But I like (the NCAAs) being in St. Louis because of the crowd. You look up there and there’s a sea of black (of Missouri fans). It’s a beautiful site. Whenever you can look up and hear everyone cheering for you, it’s a good feeling.”
It would be an even better feeling if the two-time state medalist and one-time state champion ends up atop the medal stand.
“My friends and family have been so supportive of me throughout the years,” Mayes said. “This right here is for them so they can see how much their support has helped me. If I can win and make it there, it’d be great for them to see me in the finals.”
If he’s able to win a national title, it’ll likely come with a championship victory over top-seeded and unbeaten Zain Retherford from Penn State.
“I’ve had dreams about it,” Mayes said. “I can’t lie – I’ve had dreams where I’ve pinned Retherford in every single way, win in triple overtime or lose in overtime. I’ve pictured every single scenario that could happen constantly.”
Jared Bell can be reached at (815) 220-6938. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsJared.