COLUMBIA, Mo. — Mizzou rules the mats. That was the case in 2021-22, an otherwise unsteady year for sports at the University of Missouri, a school year defined more by personnel turnover and disappointment than grand results.
There were two exceptions to the trend: a breakthrough gymnastics season and another championship for the wrestling program.
Shannon Welker’s gymnastics team made its first appearance at the NCAA Championships in more than a decade then pulled off its best finish in team history, taking fifth at the national meet. On the wrestling mats, Brian Smith’s vagabond Tigers left the Mid-American Conference to rejoin old friends in the Big 12 then promptly won the conference championship on their way toward another top-10 finish at the national meet.
Now that Mizzou’s year in sports is all but complete — a few track athletes will compete at the NCAA outdoor championships — it’s time to hand out some hardware. To no surprise, the year’s two most successful programs swept the Post-Dispatch’s postseason honors.
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Gymnast Sienna Schreiber is the P-D’s choice for Mizzou female athlete of the year, edging a few of her talented teammates. On the men’s side, national champion wrestler Keegan O’Toole is the easy choice for male athlete of the year, just ahead of record-setting running back Tyler Badie.
Welker, in his ninth season at MU, is the obvious Mizzou coach of the year, while a couple of his standout freshmen tied for Mizzou newcomer of the year: Amari Celestine and Jocelyn Moore.
“We had the right kids that were willing to believe,” Welker said. “I think everything just kind of came together. This was our year to make it happen and to make the change in our program. And we did it.”
Otherwise, this was one of the least celebrated years for Mizzou team sports since the school joined the Southeastern Conference a decade ago. The MU men compete in eight SEC sports — indoor and outdoor track and field count separately — and just two finished in either the top half of the SEC standings or the top half of the conference championship meet final results: cross country (third) and golf (fifth). At the bottom of the standings, Steve Bieser’s baseball program made strides at the plate but still finished 13th overall in the SEC and missed the conference tournament, while men’s basketball finished 12th, costing coach Cuonzo Martin his job.
On the women’s side, six of 11 teams finished near the bottom of the SEC standings in conference play or conference championship events: golf (13th), soccer (13th), tennis (12th), indoor track (14th), outdoor track (12th) and volleyball (14th). The softball team made a late run to host an NCAA regional but finished just seventh in the conference and failed to advance to the NCAA super regionals.
Mizzou male athletes earned just four first-team All-SEC selections, tied with Auburn for the fewest in MU’s eight sports.
On the women’s side, of the 11 All-SEC teams from MU’s sports, the Tigers produced seven first-team selections, ahead of only Mississippi State (three) and Vanderbilt (two).
But in gymnastics, the Tigers earned five first-team honors, led by sophomore Schreiber, who finished second nationally on the balance beam at the NCAA Championships with a brilliant 9.95 routine on the sport’s biggest stage. The Georgia native led Mizzou with nine event titles during the regular season, five on the beam and four in the all-around. In 10 regular-season meets, she scored 9.9 or better eight times on the beam.
“You could tell if you watched her compete, she was enjoying the competition and just enjoying everything that comes along with competing in the SEC,” Welker said. “She never got too high, never too low and just did what she could do. And she understood what her capabilities were.”
In March, O’Toole became Mizzou wrestling’s ninth individual NCAA champion, cruising through the NCAA Championships in Detroit with five straight wins in the 165-pound class to finish undefeated on the season, 25-0. As a second-year freshman—the extra COVID year gave him another year of eligibility — O’Toole was named Big 12 wrestler of the year on top of his long list of accolades.
“This is what Keegan was born to do,” Tigers coach Brian Smith said after the national meet.
Back to gymnastics. Under Welker’s watch the Tigers had made incremental progress in the loaded SEC but broke through this year with three conference victories over, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia and twice broke the program record for highest team score in history.
Unlike other teams on campus, Welker’s gymnasts have figured out how to compete with the elite programs in a sport the SEC typically dominates.
“I'm just glad I got the time that I needed to get it done quite honestly,” Welker said. “Not everybody gets that time. It took us eight or nine years to really get it going here. But getting people to believe, getting the right people on board that believe they can do it is really the hardest thing. Then you’ve got to get the talent to back it up.”
Welker’s two outstanding freshmen took turns grabbing the spotlight and shared the top newcomer honors. Celestine finished second on the vault (9.950) at the NCAA Championships, while Moore was named a first-team All-American for her regular-season prowess on the vault, including four event titles.