Real world to college starter: Justin Stickley steps in to Iowa lineup

Freshman spent a grayshirt year working construction

Rider’s Jonathan Tropea (left) escapes from Justin Stickley (right) for a point in their 125-pound bout at an NCAA Division I wrestling meet between Rider University and the Iowa Hawkeyes at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017. Stickley won by decision, 15-7. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Rider’s Jonathan Tropea (left) escapes from Justin Stickley (right) for a point in their 125-pound bout at an NCAA Division I wrestling meet between Rider University and the Iowa Hawkeyes at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017. Stickley won by decision, 15-7. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Justin Stickley has learned a few life lessons during his time on a wrestling mat.

The University of Iowa freshman has been able to carry over some of the real-world knowledge he accumulated to his college wrestling and academic career.

Unlike most 2016 graduates, the two-time St. Paris Graham (Ohio) state finalist spent a year in the work force and training independently, establishing in-state residency before joining the Hawkeye program.

“It was kind of interesting,” Stickley said of his grayshirt year. “Did a lot of construction. Learned a lot of things about life in the real world, if you don’t have a college degree. It was kind of tough, but it was a good learning experience.

“It made me appreciate school a lot more. I actually enjoy my classes quite a bit.”

Stickley has transitioned from service work to the starting lineup, becoming the first true freshman to start for Iowa since Nathan Burak in 2012. He is expected to man the 125-pound spot again when the seventh-ranked Hawkeyes host No. 15 Illinois Friday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Stickley opened with a title at the Luther Open and four straight victories. He improved to 5-2 with a pin against Rider’s Jonathan Tropea last week. Stickley gets his second shot at a ranked opponent, facing the Fighting Illini’s Travis Piotrowski (6-0).

“You’re never going to run across an easy opponent, so getting ready for this kid like I’m getting ready for any other match, focusing on not letting guys score on me right off the bat like I’ve done in past matches,” Stickley said. “That’s an important point moving forward.”


His past is interesting. Stickley arrived here in June 2016, but had to wait a year to enroll in school. He received a taste of independence and what life entailed outside of classes and practices. Stickley hung drywall, did carpentry work and performed other tasks others didn’t want to do.

“Being the youngest guy with the least experience, I did a lot of work that wasn’t so much fun,” Stickley said. “Cleaning after guys, tending to guys (and) a whole lot of grunt work going on.

“You learn from all those things. It’s like coming in here. You start out sometimes and you’re at the bottom of the totem pole. You just have to keep powering through and work your way, trying to get to the top.”

Stickley, a high school teammate of Iowa’s redshirt freshman 165-pounder Alex Marinelli, worked out with some wrestlers before and after last season, but wasn’t allowed near the team during the season.

He found a training home at Eastern Iowa Wrestling Club. Stickley worked out with some of the top area high school wrestlers. More importantly, he was able to wrestle with former Iowa two-time NCAA champion and three-time national finalist Matt McDonough and NCAA runner-up Joe Slaton.

“I wrestled those guys,” Stickley said. “I received a few butt-kickings from them. They’re real tough. They’re kicking your butt, but they are teaching you along the way. That’s a great tool.”

McDonough said a grayshirt is similar to a redshirt year and progress can be made if you use it wisely. Stickley approached it with the right workmanlike attitude.

“I wanted to make sure he knew when he was at my practices that he wasn’t there just to get workouts,” McDonough said. “You’re here for a purpose. You’re getting ready to win a national title next year, if it may be. He’s done a great job.


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“There’s always ups and downs. We scrapped a few times and I think he learned a lot about himself and where he could get to by having those types of experiences.”

Stickley was basically on his own with the structure and didn’t have regular partners that comes with being part of the team. He had to be self-reliant without a coach harping about when to work out and what needed to be done. Years of wrestling had already instilled that in Stickley.

”You’re working to pay your way through that year to establish yourself as a resident and you’re also training every day,” McDonough said. “It’s on you, so that’s your benefit or disadvantage and I think he did a good job of making that a regular thing, learning how to push himself.”

The learning curve was steep, but grew even more once he stepped into the Hawkeyes practice room. Iowa Coach Tom Brands has seen improvement in the early weeks of the season.

Brands said he’s better than he was two weeks ago when he lost twice at the Iowa City Duals. Stickley is better with his weight management and preparing for each match. He’s catching on quick.

“It’s an adjustment, learning process,” Brands said. “He’s a veteran in a short amount of time and he’s having a blast. He loves it here and he loves his opportunity. He’s making the most of it.”

Stickley was impressive in his last win, despite a lackluster start that saw him fall in a 6-0 hole. He stormed back for a 10-7 lead by the end of the first period. He turned and stuck Tropea in the second period.

“He has energy and when he’s rolling he can get to his offense,” Brands said. “He can score.”


Stickley anticipated to wrestle 133, like he did as an unattached wrestler in a few open tournaments last year, winning the Luther Open’s freshman division. He moved down to 125 to help the Hawkeyes.

Whether he is there for the long haul or is holding the spot for multi-time World Champion until current redshirt Spencer Lee steps in, Stickley doesn’t see himself anywhere else.

“It’s great to be a Hawkeye,” said Stickley, a nationally-ranked high school recruit. “Any time you’re putting on the singlet, going to battle for Iowa, it’s always great.

“I keep seeing myself in that black-and-gold singlet and I don’t see a whole lot changing, as far as me looking forward and what my goals are for my future.”

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