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Maryland wrestler Jaxon Smith eyeing history as Terps host Big Ten championships

Jaxon Smith thinks he was about 9 or 10 years old when his father Jeremy sat him down for a discussion about juggling baseball, football and wrestling.

“He said, ‘Do you want to be good at all of these sports or do you want to be great at one?’” Jaxon Smith recalled. “I told him that I wanted to be great at one, and he said, ‘All right, pick a sport.’ I said, ‘I want to wrestle,’ and he was like, ‘All right, let’s be great at wrestling.’”

Turns out the younger Smith knew what he was talking about. With a 15-3 record this winter, the Maryland redshirt sophomore is ranked No. 3 in the country at 197 pounds by FloWrestling and No. 8 by WrestleStat.

When the Terps host the Big Ten Tournament for the first time this weekend, Smith will be the No. 2 seed in his weight class. He is flanked by fellow top-10 seeds in graduate student Seth Nevills (12-6) at No. 5 at 285 pounds, redshirt sophomore Ethen Miller (14-5) at No. 6 at 149 pounds and redshirt sophomore Braxton Brown (16-7) at No. 7 at 133 pounds.

Although Smith is in the same weight class as three-time NCAA champion Aaron Brooks (14-0) of Penn State, Maryland coach Alex Clemsen isn’t putting anything beyond Smith’s reach.

“He’s special, he really is,” Clemsen said. “He’s a thoroughbred. His talent level is through the charts. If you look back at his peewee results and his age group results, he’s been an elite competitor in our sport for a long time. It’s great when your best kid is one of your best kids, and he really is.”

Jim Gibbons, an NCAA titlist at 134 pounds in 1981 and three-time All-American at Iowa State who will provide coverage of the league tournament as an analyst for the Big Ten Network, said Smith is capable of making waves at the conference and national levels.

“He’s kind of the flagship guy for the Maryland program right now and the work that Alex Clemsen has been doing there to rebuild the program,” Gibbons said. “So he’s got to go out there and represent the program as best he can, and I think the rest will take care of itself.”

Smith, who grew up in Cartersville, Georgia, began wrestling when he was 5 years old and picked up a flyer seeking newcomers. His entry into the sport was almost serendipitous.

“There was a little gap between football and baseball that I wasn’t doing anything,” he said. “So I wanted to try something new. My dad said, ‘You have some free time there.’ So I decided to start wrestling.”

A two-time state champion in Georgia who lost only one time in 101 matches and was ranked No. 8 nationally at 182 pounds by FloWrestling, Smith redshirted his freshman year in 2021-22. But he flashed some potential when he competed in the bronze medal match at 92 kilograms of the 2022 Under 20 World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, before finishing fifth.

Last season, Smith went 23-8 and led the Terps in pins with seven. He earned a bronze at the Big Ten Tournament for the program’s best placement since 2019 and advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championship.

Clemsen credited Jeremy and Tonya Smith with raising their son to demand the best for himself while also emphasizing the benefits of a strong work ethic.

“Jaxon from day one, you could put a saddle on him and pull the whip and get after him, and he’d run even faster,” Clemsen said. “He almost responds better to it. He just is who he is. You can really push him, and that’s a credit to him, and that’s why you continue to see his development progress, and I think you’ll see it continue because he’s not afraid of hard, he’s not afraid of uncomfortable. He really wants to do great things in this sport.”

Smith enjoyed a pair of five-match winning streaks this season and knocked off South Dakota State senior Tanner Sloan, a returning NCAA finalist at 197 pounds, in the semifinals of the Cliff Keen Invitational on Dec. 2 before falling to North Carolina State graduate student Trent Hidlay in the final. Smith said a change in mindset has contributed to his positive results.

“I think the biggest difference from last year to this year is just having more belief in myself,” he said. “It’s expecting to win these big matches, wrestling these guys that have had success in the past, and just believing that I’m just as good, if not better. I’m really believing in my skills and my capabilities of winning big matches.”

Smith, Brown and Miller headline a 2021 recruiting class that Clemsen hopes will attract more talented prospects. Miller said the trio is close.

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“I think us three for sure, we all just go balls-to-the-wall every day and work as hard as we can,” he said. “I feel like us three have a lot in common. So just having him as a teammate, it’s good. We all stick together and do all the right things that we can and just get better every day.”

Smith might be Maryland’s best hope to bring home the program’s first individual Big Ten championship and first conference title since 2014 when Jimmy Sheptock won at 184 pounds when the school competed in the Atlantic Coast Conference. To do that, he might have to go through Brooks, a Hagerstown resident and North Hagerstown graduate who is the top-ranked wrestler nationally at 197 pounds, owns a career record of 81-3 and captured all three of his previous Big Ten and NCAA crowns at 184 pounds.

“He’s got the best guy in the weight class in the Big Ten,” Gibbons, the Big Ten Network analyst, said of the field facing Smith. “It’s a tall task to beat who I think is one of the better upper-weight wrestlers we have and had done most of his damage at 184 and now is up at 197. So that’s a tall order, but everything else is up for grabs.”

Smith, who suffered a 13-4 major decision loss to Brooks in a dual meet Jan. 28, is unfazed by the prospect of tangling with Brooks. His priority is realizing a goal he set for himself when he first took up wrestling.

“I wanted to be the best in the country. I’m not there yet,” he said. “So that’s something that I want. [No.] 3’s good, but [No.] 3’s not [No.] 1. That’s where I want to be.”

Big Ten wrestling championships

At Xfinity Center, College Park

Saturday to Sunday

TV/Stream: Big Ten Network/BTN+