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Missouri wrestling has its first home meet of the season at 7 p.m. Thursday, but it will come with a change of scenery.

Instead of being at the Hearnes Center, the Tigers will host Illinois at Francis Howell High School.

Howell’s double-decker gym, like the Park Hill gym Missouri beat Virginia in last season, has a more intimate feel with fans closer to the mat.

“It’s going to be so loud in there,” Francis Howell wrestling coach Kevin Stroh said. “Especially Illinois being a local school, they are going to have fans there and I think it’s going to be a really crazy dual meet. Hearnes is an awesome place, but since it’s kind of open you don’t really feel like the fans are right on top of you getting really loud.”

The meet will be a homecoming for Missouri senior Connor Flynn, who won a state title at Howell as a senior in 2014-15. Flynn is off to a 5-0 start this year after a 4-0 performance on Nov. 3 at the Southeast Open .

Stroh credits Flynn as a driving force in the improvement of the wrestling program at Howell, now one of the top high school programs in Missouri.

“We were between like 15th and 20th at the state tournament,” Stroh said. “Then he came in and since his freshman year, we’ve finished in the top 10 every year.”

When Stroh hosts Missouri at Howell, he will also be reunited with his former college coach in Smith. Stroh was on Smith’s first team at Missouri in 1998-99 and has seen the Missouri program grow under Smith.

“It’s night and day,” Stroh said. “When I was there the expectations for us weren’t very high and then coach Smith got there and he held everyone to a higher standard and cared for everybody in the program.”

“We went from being a not very well-respected program to one of the most respected programs in the country.”

Thursday’s rivalry matchup will be an opportunity for that highly-respected program to get back on track after a Nov. 2 loss to No. 18 Virginia Tech to open the season.

Missouri knocked off Illinois in each of the past two seasons with a 30-8 win last year in Champaign and a 20-17 victory at the MU softball stadium in 2017, and the No. 12 Tigers will be favored in this year’s matchup as well. The unranked Illini have been a mixed bag in the first month of the season, beating Tennessee-Chattanooga but falling in a nail-biter to No. 24 Army 19-15.

Flynn will likely have the most anticipated bout of the night in his home gym. The No. 8 wrestler in the 174-pound weight class goes up against No. 18 Joey Gunther in the only confirmed top-20 matchup of the night.

No. 14 Jarrett Jacques could wrestle for Missouri against Illinois’ No. 16 Eric Barone, but Missouri coach Brian Smith could also pick Phyllip DeLoach for the 157-pound bout. No. 2 Brock Mauller will be heavily favored against 2-4 Mousa Jodeh at 149 pounds.

The most intriguing storyline will be No. 5 Grant Leeth, who could make his debut in the 141-pound division. Leeth has dealt with three season-ending injuries in his collegiate career after a shoulder injury derailed his 2018-19 season. Smith will choose either Leeth or Alex Butler in the 141-pound division.

This article originally ran on columbiamissourian.com.

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