Austin Smith saw this scene before, only from a different angle. Before the championship matches of the state wrestling tournament commence, the participants are paraded out onto the floor of the Mizzou Arena and introduced to the crowd. It’s an incredible spectacle. The atmosphere crackles with anticipation and excitement.
A senior at Whitfield, Smith, 18, always watched this tradition unfold from the stands. The last three years he watched his teammates take the floor. Two weeks ago in Columbia, he didn’t watch it—he lived it. Smith advanced to the Class 1, 132-pound state championship bout and, as such, was brought out with his fellow finalists and introduced to the crowd as one of ‘the best wrestlers in the state of Missouri.’
It gave Smith chills, goose bumps, butterflies and any other feeling one can have when they realize they’re within a whisker of achieving a life-long goal and will have to do so in a stadium that is filled to the gills. “I’d seen it so many times,” the 5-foot-8 Smith says. “Just to be down there was a dream. It was the senior dream. I was just happy to be a part of it.”
Smith was happy to be there, but there was work to be done. He was chasing his first state championship. The Warriors had locked up the Class 1 team championship the day before with a dominating effort, securing their second straight title and fourth since 2008.
He went through his pre-match routine, and when it was time, he walked out to the mat, was greeted by his coaches and looked up. Standing in front of him was something out of a nightmare. The nightmare’s name was Kevin Steeby, the undefeated and defending state champion from Mid-Buchanan. This was the same Steeby that handed Smith a 10-2 loss in the state tournament as a sophomore. And then did so again the next year.
Smith had never conquered Steeby. Now it was Steeby he’d have to go through. “I didn’t realize it was him until I saw him on the mat,” Smith says.
Wrestling is an intense sport. It’s physically exhausting and mentally draining. The mental aspects of the sport are often the difference between close wins and losses. After his two previous matchups with Steeby, Smith’s knees could have been knocking. “Those are some tough things to overcome psychologically,” Whitfield coach Charlie Sherertz says.
Nevertheless, Smith took to the mat and wiped his mind clean of the past. “I’d worked too hard for four years,” Smith says.
The match was tied 1-1 with one minute and 50 seconds remaining in the third period. Smith would score a takedown for two points, hold on for the 3-2 victory and win his first state championship. He finished his season 46-6. Steeby’s season ended at 49-1. “It was just redemption,” Smith says.
To even be in that position, Smith took his share of lumps. He wrestled at 138 pounds during the regular season, six pounds heavier than the postseason. Though six pounds doesn’t seem like much, it can make a world of difference on the mat. By taking on the bigger, stronger opponents, Smith was primed to be a wrecking ball at the lighter weight.
He also pushed himself through the rigorous training regimen Sherertz and the coaching staff put before him. To be at 132 pounds for the state meet, Smith was on a strict diet that was big on fruits and vegetables and a country mile from anything you would buy in a food court. “I bought into the program. It was hard, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Smith says. “But it works for you.” It worked for Smith. It took him from the stands to the floor. It made him one of the best wrestlers in the state of Missouri.