IOWA CITY — Two years ago, a knee injury forced a hobbled Sam Stoll to end his season a few minutes after he made his NCAA tournament debut.
The experience was better than last season when a similar injury to the same name made him a spectator for the last half of the season, including the national tournament in St. Louis.
Both times he needed surgery to repair torn ligaments, which makes his current situation that much more impressive.
Iowa’s 6-foot-3 heavyweight rebounded with a 19-4 record this season and is healthy and strong for the first time during the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships. Stoll is the fifth seed in the three-day event, starting Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
Stoll is one of nine Iowa qualifiers.
“It’s my first healthy postseason,” said Stoll, who earned an automatic berth with a fourth-place finish at the Big Ten Championships. “I haven’t had the chance to prove myself in the postseason, yet. The Big Tens didn’t go how I wanted, but building from that and I’m excited.”
Being able to walk without a hitch might have been a concern to some as much as competing at the level that made him one of the nation’s top recruits. Stoll dedicated his time to his rehabilitation, noting that he remained in Iowa City for all but a day or two during the summer.
“To have that procedure twice and where we’re at now is a testament to him,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said. “He took steps that were positive to put himself in this situation, position.
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“He’s had great doctors. He’s had a great trainer, Jesse Donnenwerth. We have a heavyweight that’s healthy in the postseason. It’s been awhile and that’s an important part of our team.”
As a freshman, Stoll injured his knee in the National Duals against Nick Gwiazdowski. He gutted it out through the Big Ten tournament to qualify. Stoll was the 11th seed and was in a winnable match when his knee buckled in the second period and then injury defaulted from the bout and the rest of the tournament.
“It sucks, but it’s something you build from,” Stoll said. “It’s kind of like the cliché saying goes what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I think that whole experience, even last year, it’s made me a better person overall and wrestler.”
Stoll attended the conference and national tournaments last year, admitting he was jealous of guys he had beaten or wrestled close matches with earn All-American honors.
“It’s not fun,” Stoll said. “This is fun. Getting to wrestle is fun.”
Stoll and Brands said he made some changes to have the chance to compete. He slimmed down to between 260 and 265, alleviating some stress on his knee. He was more deliberate with his training, staying focused on each stage of his rehab and correcting what didn’t work the first time. Stoll has learned on the mat as well.
“I think I’m more mature,” Stoll said. “I don’t chase things as much. That was part of the reason I got hurt. I’d get straight-legged, walking into guys. I think I’m stingier. I stay in better position. I still wrestle a high pace.”
Brands said the positive steps have led to this point and a heavyweight who helped the Hawkeyes cement dual wins against Illinois, Rutgers and Oklahoma State.
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“We’re excited,” Brands said. “He’s excited. It’s been fun watching him in that room prepare. It’s one of those things maybe a year ago you’re holding your breath a bit and this year you’re not holding your breath in there.”
Even with each postseason roadblock, Stoll never doubted his ability to return. He has modified his training, but not drastically. His mind-set remains the same as it was before either setback.
“Anybody who knows our program knows that just because things don’t happen it doesn’t derail you from what you’re set out to do,” Stoll said. “My goals now are the same as they were when I stepped in.”
The goal is to contend for a national title and earn a spot on the awards stand. Stoll enters the tournament with six wins over ranked foes and owns an 11-5 all-time mark against the current field, including his four losses this season to Michigan’s second-seeded Adam Coon and Penn State’s No. 3-seed Nick Nevills.
Stoll’s sights are fixed only on his first-round match against Franklin and Marshall’s Antonio Pelusi (24-8).
“I’ve looked at my side of the bracket and how it is supposed to shake out,” Stoll said. “It’s the NCAA tournament. It never goes how people think it’s going to go.
“Really, I’m just looking at it one match at a time. I know who I have first round. Right now, I’m just focused on that match and continue throughout the tournament.”
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