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Missouri's Ben Askren focused on leading Tigers to their first NCAA team title

All that preseason talk you heard swirling around the wrestling world about Missouri senior Ben Askren moving down to 165 pounds this year.

It was true.

The reigning Hodge Trophy winner did want to drop down a weight class after winning the 174-pound NCAA Championship last season.

At least for one meet anyway.

"I wanted to wrestle (two-time NCAA champion Johny) Hendricks in the All-Star Classic," Askren said. "I wanted to wrestle 165 just for that match because that is what everyone wants to see and it would be a good show for the fans to watch. It's the All-Star Classic and the match doesn't count anyway. I was going to do it for fun."

The match between Askren and Oklahoma State's Hendricks could not be arranged since the invitations had already been sent out for the dual, but Askren doesn't need a match with Hendricks to put on a show for wrestling fans.

That occurs virtually every time the flashy, unorthodox, bushy-haired, three-time NCAA finalist steps on the mat at 174 pounds.

Askren has only stood on the top step of the NCAA Championships podium once, but he clearly ranks as one of the most dominant, entertaining and charismatic collegiate wrestlers in recent years.

The Hartland, Wis., native wrestles a funky, aggressive style where he comes right at opponents with an assortment of techniques and maneuvers. The result last season was a spotless 45-0 record that included 25 pins.

He took all the suspense out of his finals match early, dismantling previously unbeaten Jake Herbert of Northwestern 14-2 to win the 174-pound national title. Askren became Missouri's first Division I wrestling champion in the 76-year history of the NCAA Championships. He was named the tournament's Outstanding Wrestler.

He now looks to win back-to-back NCAA titles at 174. Missouri coach Brian Smith has said Askren certified at 165, in part because of his desire to wrestle in that weight class for the All-Star dual, but plans to compete at 174.

Askren's relentless, go-for-broke style is a direct result of all the extra hours he logs in the practice room.

"His true freshman year, Ben didn't just walk right in and dominate," Smith said. "We knew he was pretty good and had a chance to be special. But he had to develop some things. He really committed to the weight room and got stronger. What really impressed me was after a two-hour practice he would stay for another hour and wrestle live and train. He wants to improve every day and his level of commitment to the sport is amazing. He works very hard and it shows."

And he's developed a bit of a cult following in wrestling circles for his curly mane of light brown hair. A group of fans at last year's NCAA Championships in Oklahoma City were caught on camera wearing Afro-style wigs similar to the hairstyle that Askren was sporting. The colorful Askren cut his hair shortly after the NCAAs last year, but is starting to grow it out again.

Smith laughed when asked about Askren's crazy hair and said he wouldn't mind seeing Askren keep it short. But Smith said the hair is a reflection of Askren's unique personality.

The Tiger coach said he's enjoyed his association with the kid he scored a huge recruiting coup by landing five years ago.

"Ben excels in everything he does," Smith said. "He's not only a great athlete, but he's an Academic All-American and he's a leader on campus. He is the student-advisory president where he is the president of all the student-athletes at Missouri. He enjoys life, he's happy, he's outgoing and he's got a great personality. I can't say enough good things about him. He's meant so much to our program."

One time when Askren isn't happy is when he doesn't win his match in convincing fashion.

"His goal is to dominate," Smith said. "When he wins a close match, he's crushed by it. It drives him nuts if he wins a match by a point or two. He wants to pin or tech everybody."

That was evident during a match Smith recalled.

"Ben ended up teching this guy after it looked like he could have pinned him," Smith said. "When he came off the mat I said, 'Why didn't you pin that guy?' He said, 'A lot of people said I'm not that good on my feet and I wanted to prove I could tech the guy with takedowns.' Ben wanted to prove he was just as good on his feet as he is wrestling down on the mat."

Missouri had not only never crowned an NCAA champion, but had not made much of an impact at all on the national level when Askren, a Junior Nationals champion, signed with the Tigers in 2001. He was a two-time Wisconsin state champion.

"When I came down on my visit, I really liked everything about Missouri," Askren said. "Our program has really developed and it's been fun to be a part of that."

After Askren became Missouri's first NCAA champion last March, the Tigers now have their sights set on bigger goals this season. Missouri starts the season ranked fifth nationally by Wrestling International Newsmagazine.

Adding a second Askren to the lineup is a big reason for Missouri's optimism. Ben's younger brother, Max, a redshirt freshman, will start at 197 pounds. Max Askren wrestled on the U.S. Junior World Team this summer. Among the wrestlers Max beat in open tournaments during his redshirt season at Missouri was Oklahoma All-American Joel Flaggert, who starts the year ranked fourth.

"We don't do the exact same things, but we both wrestle hard for seven minutes," Ben said. "Max will do a lot of things people have never seen before. He does a lot of unorthodox things. He's great scrambling-wise, great on top and great on bottom. He's a great workout partner for me. He pushes me a lot."

Smith said the Askren boys mix it up pretty well in the room.

"Ben has the upper hand on Max, but Max is bigger than Ben and is gaining more experience," Smith said. "The gap's getting a little closer. Max probably has a little bit of an edge over where Ben was at this point in his career. Max has been able to watch Ben go through it and he has learned from what his brother has done."

Ben Askren already has excelled internationally and already is focused on making the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team in freestyle. He placed fifth at the 2005 U.S. World Team Trials and won the Pan American Championships that same year.

The 22-year-old has competed internationally at 84 kg/185 pounds, but is small for that weight class and may drop down a class to 74 kg/163 pounds once his college career ends in March.

"Wrestling internationally is something I think about a lot," Askren said. "I want to win the Olympics. Once NCAAs is over, my complete focus turns toward the Olympics. It's been a realistic goal for me since I watched (fellow Wisconsin native) Garrett Lowney win a bronze medal in the Olympics in 2000."

Askren, a team captain for the third straight season, is one of four Wisconsin natives expected to be in Missouri's starting lineup this year. In addition to the Askren brothers, the Tigers will have starters in Matt Pell (165) and Josh Wagner (149). Pell is from Luxemburg, Wis. and Wagner from Milton, Wis.

"Ben is like the Pied Piper of the sport," Smith said with a laugh. "Everybody from little kids to adults enjoy being around him. He was the first guy from Wisconsin to come here and then the other guys followed. That has a lot to do with Ben and his personality."

Smith said having Askren around is like having another coach in the room.

"Ben came to me this summer and was talking about what we needed to do to win the national title," Smith said. "At first, I thought he was talking about him winning it again. But he was talking about wanting the team to win it. He's very interested in what the other guys are doing. He sits in on coaches meetings and is a true student of the sport. He's a great leader and cares very much about the team."

Askren placed second to Oklahoma State's Chris Pendleton at the NCAA Championships as a freshman and sophomore. He is 111-8 in his career. Seven losses were to Pendleton, whom Askren beat in the Big 12 finals in 2004. His only other loss in college came to Purdue's Ryan Lange during Askren's freshman season. Askren hasn't tasted defeat at the collegiate level since the final bout of his sophomore season.

Askren didn't wrestle much competitively following the 2005-06 college season. He won his first-round match at April's U.S. Nationals in freestyle, but lost his next two bouts and failed to place.

He also took about a month and a half off after suffering a neck injury. He said he's fine now.

Wrestling isn't the only sport Askren excels at. He's an accomplished disc golfer. Askren has said he plans on "playing disc until the day I am buried."

"It's my hobby - I actually played this afternoon," Askren said on Tuesday. "I can't train (for wrestling) 12 hours a day - I need some free time and I need something else to do. It's such a relaxing sport and so good for me. There are three courses in Columbia and one close to my house. I took 46th this year at the Amateur World Championships in Tulsa, Okla. I started out really poorly and then came back and played well after that. One day maybe I can go pro, if I can get good enough. I may pursue that in a few years."

For now, the focus is on trying to duplicate what he did on the mat last year. And hope a few of his teammates come along for the ride when the NCAA meet is held at The Palace on March 15-17 in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Askren's dominance likely will continue. The wrestlers who finished second and third behind Askren at the NCAAs last year - Herbert and Iowa's Mark Perry - have moved out of the 174 division. Herbert bumped up to 184 while Perry dropped back down to 165.

And the inevitable question keeps cropping up for Askren. After such a magical junior year, what does he do for an encore?

"I'm looking to do the exact same thing I did on the mat last year - wrestle hard, have fun and dominate," Askren said. "I want to see our team win a national title - I definitely think that's a realistic goal. We are going to be really strong."

Smith said he is excited to see what Askren can do when he concentrates on freestyle wrestling full-time.

"Ben's ultimate goal is to win the Olympics and there is no doubt in my mind that is a realistic goal," Smith said. "He's already done very well internationally at a very young age. If he continues to put the time in he will continue to progress. He's such a student of the game that he will keep improving and developing at the next level."
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