In a season in which Maryland wrestling’s No. 8 recruiting class from two seasons ago was starting to make their mark on the national stage, one member often sat on the sideline.

Jaxon Smith, who was ranked No. 14 by InterMat in the 197-pound weight class at the conclusion of the regular season, saw limited action during the second half of the year.

After dropping just three bouts in Maryland’s 10 opening dual matches of the season, Smith found himself out of the lineup for the first time all season when the Terps took on Ohio State in January.

Missing the Ohio State dual then turned into Smith seeing action in just three of Maryland’s last nine duals to end the regular season. Smith captured victory in all three by way of a pin, major decision and a decision.

Coach Alex Clemsen said Smith was suffering from a minor injury throughout the regular season and the move to leave him out of the lineup would “give him the best opportunity to wrestle deep into the NCAA tournament.” He added that the decision was something he and his staff took into careful consideration.

Smith’s performance over the two-day Big Ten championships made it apparent that the decision paid off, and the redshirt freshman is ready to make a mark in the NCAA championships later this month.

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Smith took to the mat in just two Big Ten duals throughout the regular season, featuring in Maryland’s loss to Indiana and the Terps’ win over Purdue, their first conference dual victory since 2016.

Aside from that pair of victories, the only other Big Ten wrestler he faced during the regular season was Illinois’ Zac Braunagel at the Tiger Style Invite in November. Smith defeated Braunagel by fall en route to a second place finish in the event.

Braunagel would end up a familiar foe throughout Smith’s Big Ten championships campaign.

Smith was awarded the No. 6 seed in the 197-pound weight class, setting up an opening round bout with Rutgers’ No. 11 Billy Janzer. Smith bested Janzer by an 8-3 decision. 

“I was pretty excited going into the Big Ten tournament,” Smith said. “I didn’t really get to wrestle many of these kids throughout the season.”

The victory over Janzer pitted him against the No. 3 seed in the next round, which happened to be Braunagel. Smith fell to the redshirt junior by a 6-4 decision in sudden victory. The early loss took Smith out of the running for the 197-pound crown, but he wasn’t finished in the first Big Ten championships yet.

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Falling into the wrestleback bracket, Smith was one more loss away from exiting the tournament and potentially missing out on an automatic bid to the NCAA championships. To secure an automatic place in Tulsa, he needed to win one more bout.

Smith delivered, defeating Northwestern’s No. 12 Andrew Davison by a 3-1 decision.

“He battled, this is why we shelved him, there, in the middle of the Big Ten run … he just wasn’t healthy and he’s still not 100 percent, but very few guys are,” Clemsen said. “But whatever percent he is, is pretty freaking good.”

Smith won once more on Saturday, putting him one win away from the third place final.

Opening on Sunday in the consolation semifinals, Smith overcame Iowa’s No. 5 Jacob Warner in sudden victory, setting up a third place final against none other than Braunagel.

“I was expecting to make the finals and give it a run to win,” Smith said. “But watching the quarters and at that point, I was just looking for the next best thing.”

In that final, Smith avenged his earlier loss to Braunagel with yet another decision win in sudden victory. The 5-3 decision clinched Smith a top-three finish and earned him the best finish of any Maryland wrestler at the Big Ten championships since 2019.