Photo courtesy of Mizzou Athletics
By JARED BELL
Lavion Mayes will wrestle for a national title in front of the hometown crowd.
A Mascoutah graduate and a 149-pound redshirt senior at Missouri, Mayes won his semifinal by a thrilling 4-2 decision in Friday’s NCAA Championships in St. Louis as he scored a takedown with three seconds left to advance to Saturday night’s national title match at the Scottrade Center, located just 30 miles from his hometown.
“I only have this last match now in a Missouri singlet and thinking about that is kind of sobering,” Mayes said. “I can’t compete collegiately anymore after this, so right now winning the national title is my focus.”
Mayes was one of three wrestlers with Illinois ties who wrestled in Friday night’s semifinals. Illinois 165-pound redshirt junior and two-time returning national champion Isaiah Martinez won by a 2-1 decision to advance to the finals, while Iowa 184-pound redshirt senior and Oak Park-River Forest graduate Sammy Brooks fell in his semifinal by first-period fall.
Mayes, though, stole the show as he needed some late fireworks to edge Northern Iowa’s Max Thomsen.
After Thomsen found an escape to tie the match at 2 with 54 seconds left in the third period, the two battled for a match-winning takedown, which Mayes got with time running out.
Following a review, the call – and victory – stood.
“The first thing I did was look over at (Missouri head) coach (Brain) Smith and was like, ‘Hey, I’m on TV!” Mayes joked. “And then I asked him, ‘Is it going to be reversed?’ I was being serious because I would have put my head gear back on and got back in the zone, but he said, ‘No, there’s no way. That was two.’”
With the win, No. 3-seeded Mayes (23-2) will meet No. 1 seed Zain Retherford (27-0) from Penn State. Retherford has pinned or tech falled his way through the tournament thus far.
“I’ve been wrestling the past 11 years of my life, and this is somewhere I never thought I would have been because I didn’t know college wrestling existed when I first started,” Mayes said. “It’s kind of cool to be where a lot of people consider the pinnacle of wrestling.”
The Illinois redshirt junior and Lemoore, Calif., native moved within a win of capturing his third straight national title as in Friday night’s semifinal Martinez earned a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Wisconsin’s Isaac Jordan.
“This was definitely not another match, and I don’t believe athletes that say this tournament is just another tournament,” Martinez said. “I really don’t believe it. I think they do that to give themselves false security. This is the big time. This is the big show. There’s obviously a little bit of pressure, but when you’re a good athlete, you know how to combat that anxiety and get your body ready to perform.”
Martinez did just that in the semifinals as he grinded out the win.
In a low-scoring contest, Martinez took the early 1-0 lead, but Jordan tied the match with a third-period escape.
Neither wrestler scored again, but Martinez won the match on riding time.
With the win, the No. 1-seeded Martinez (31-0) will look for another title as he faces No. 3 seed Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph (21-4) in the national championship match.
“I try not to let my ego get in the way of my competing, but it’s not a secret – I want to be one of the greatest of all time,” Martinez said. “I think about that a lot, and I’m very close to being considered one of the greatest of all time in college wrestling.”
The redshirt senior at Iowa cruised through the tournament and into Friday night’s semifinal, but Brooks was unable to get past Penn State’s Bo Nickal in the semifinals as the OPRF graduate lost by fall at 1:02.
It was the second time this season Nickal beat Brooks by fall. The first time was in 38 seconds in a Big Ten Conference dual.
With the loss, Brooks will wrestle in the wrestlebacks on Saturday morning. A win in his first match and he’ll go for third, and he’ll go for fifth with a loss.
While three kids originally from Illinois or attending college in Illinois wrestled in Friday’s semifinals, many more achieved All-American status with wins in the wrestlebacks.
Illinois 174-pound redshirt senior Zac Brunson won both of his matches Friday night and can finish either third, fourth, fifth or sixth depending on how he fares Saturday.
Carbondale graduate and Illinois 133-pound redshirt senior Zane Richards, Marian Catholic graduate and Indiana 184-pound redshirt senior Nathan Jackson, and Minooka graduate and Southern Illinois-Edwardsville redshirt senior Jake Residori went 1-1 on Friday night and all three will wrestle for seventh place on Saturday.
Six other wrestlers ended a win shy of All-American status.
Jared Bell can be reached at (815) 220-6938. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsJared.