Sam Stoll has played an occasional game of poker with friends.
He has tried his hand at Texas Hold ‘em. Maybe even Omaha for fun now and then. Stoll has likely had to conjure up a winner from an unsuited seven and deuce at times.
Iowa’s heavyweight never shies away from playing the cards he has been dealt, even if the deck has been stacked against him.
“There’s not a lot that is going to keep me down for too long,” the four-year starter and returning All-American said. “It could always be worse.”
Stoll has endured three injury-plagued seasons during his Hawkeye career and finds himself with one last chance to achieve his postseason goals when fifth-ranked Iowa competes at the Big Ten Wrestling Championships at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, beginning Saturday at 10 a.m.
“It definitely means a lot more, knowing that I’m not going to be able to strap it up in this Iowa singlet again after these next couple weeks,” said Stoll, who will likely wrestle Greco-Roman after college. “There’s a little more emphasis that way and also that I haven’t won one yet. It’s my last shot to go and really accomplish the goals I want to accomplish.”
Stoll (8-3) is the eighth seed in a bracket that features nine of the nation’s top-15 ranked heavyweights. He will attempt to improve last year’s fourth-place conference finish and position himself for a chance to win a national title in Pittsburgh, Pa., March 21-23.
“I think he realizes that he’s a fifth-year senior and there is no recourse here,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said. “This is it.”
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Stoll has persevered his share of bad beats, despite posting his best season a year ago with a 25-6 record and fifth-place NCAA tournament performance.
As a freshman, he suffered a knee injury in a late-season match. He still qualified for the national tournament, but defaulted when it was reinjured in his first bout, undergoing surgery in the offseason.
Stoll returned, only to have his sophomore season cut short in January when he suffered a similar knee ligament injury.
He was limited early this season, working his way back from offseason surgery caused by a gunshot wound to the knee.
“He is a tough, tough man,” Brands said. “He’s a man’s man and there is nothing wrong with that.
“He’s grown a lot, so he has learned to handle this adversity as well.”
Stoll even had to endure a verbal attack from an opposing fan during the Midlands Championships in December. The situation temporarily interrupted the match until the fan was escorted from the arena and Stoll finished the bout. He was unfazed, but it demonstrated his resilience.
“I’ve had some (messed)-up (stuff) said to me in my life,” Stoll said. “It didn’t really bother me.”
Stoll noted people face tougher draws in daily life, getting hit by a car crossing the street or suffering a terminal illness. His position is aces compared to many others.
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“I’m wrestling for the University of Iowa and I have a Big Ten title and an NCAA title,” Stoll said. “So, my life is pretty damn good right now.”
Experience, approach and personality have made him a leader for a young Iowa team. He is one of two seniors — 174-pounder Mitch Bowman being the other — to take the mat this weekend.
“He’s a leader by default because he is a fifth-year senior and he’s also a leader because he’s well-liked in that locker room,” Brands said. “He’s popular. He’s funny. He’s tough. He’s dealt with a lot and he’s like the Energizer Bunny. He keeps on going — boom, boom, boom, boom.”
Stoll won his first six matches, including a dramatic debut that helped the Hawkeyes top rival Iowa State. He closed the season with two straight losses and dropped three of his last five, struggling to get out from underneath at times.
As he has always done, he is pressing forward and isn’t looking back.
“It’s obviously not how I wanted the season to go to this point, but that’s all in the past,” Stoll said. “I’ve got these next couple weeks to accomplish what I want to accomplish, so that’s all I’m really focused on.
“You can look back to ‘what-ifs’ and ‘I wish’ but that’s really irrelevant right now. What’s relevant is the job right in front of me, focusing on what I need to do each day to get to my goal.”
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