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The Iowa wrestling coach talks about his freshman 125 pounder. Cody Goodwin/HawkCentral

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Hawkeyes’ first wrestling dual against Rider last Friday got off to a less-than-ideal start.

Justin Stickley took the mat for Iowa at 125 pounds, and in a blink, he trailed Jonathan Tropea 6-1. But the freshman stormed back with a pair of takedowns and some back points for a 10-7 lead after one period.

Then, midway through the second, Stickley worked a half over for a pin, spurring the crowd of 7,699 to their feet inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena and sparking the 10th-ranked Hawkeyes to a 35-6 win over the 20th-ranked Broncs.

“He has energy,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said of Stickley, “and when he’s rolling, he can score. … Stickley has scoring ability — right away back into it. He started scoring before the first period was even over.

“He’s having a blast. He loves it here.”

Until the decision regarding Spencer Lee comes down, Stickley figures to be the guy for Iowa at 125 pounds. He will get another chance to flash his ability this Friday against No. 16 Illinois in the Hawkeyes’ first Big Ten dual of the 2017-18 season.

It is an opportunity Stickley is cherishing, if only because of what it took for him to get here in the first place.

Stickley moved to Iowa City in June 2016 after a solid career at the prestigious St. Paris Graham in Ohio. He was a three-time state medalist and two-time finalist. He gray-shirted last year to establish in-state residency and trim college costs before enrolling at Iowa this fall.

While gray-shirting, he worked construction, often the youngest guy at each site. He described a lot of his daily duties as grunt work — “cleaning after guys, tending to guys … carpentry, drywall, other things like that,” Stickley said. “I did a lot of work that wasn’t so much fun.”

He added: “It was kind of interesting. Learned a lot of things about life in the real world if you don’t have a college degree. That was kind of tough, but it was a good learning experience, and it made me appreciate school a lot more. I actually enjoy my classes quite a bit.”

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The freshman 125-pounder discusses his early season results. Cody Goodwin/HawkCentral

All the while, Stickley, a business management major, continued wrestling. He practiced with Iowa both before and after the 2016-17 season, but was left to find other options during the year. He worked out with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club and Eastern Iowa Wrestling Club on occasion, tangling with former Iowa wrestlers Matt McDonough and Joe Slaton.

“I received a few butt-kickings from them,” Stickley said and laughed. “They’re real tough. But they didn’t just kick my butt. They taught me along the way, too, which was great.”

The results showed. Stickley fared well at a few open tournaments last year. He took second at 133 at the Pat "Flash" Flanagan Open last January in Dubuque behind Northern Iowa’s Rudy Yates and ahead of Jack Wagner, who transferred from Iowa to UNI ahead of this year. He also won the 2016 Luther Open at 133 in the freshman/sophomore division.

Stickley officially joined the Iowa wrestling program after the 2017 spring semester. He’s listed as a 133-pounder, but dropped to 125 after consultation with coaches. His weight management was a struggle at first, he said, but he’s done better in recent weeks.

He nailed down the starting spot after soundly beating Perez Perez twice in the wrestle-offs earlier this month. Stickley then opened the season with four straight victories, with two pins and a major. He had a rough go of it at the Iowa City Duals, going 1-2 and losing once by fall, forcing him to learn some crucial lessons quickly.

“We’re better there than we were two weeks ago,” Brands said Tuesday. “He’s a veteran in a short amount of time. He’s had to realize that college wrestling is different than high school and that every match, you have to get up in a great way.

“Maybe in the past, he had three or four or five tough matches and they were throughout the year, so you could take one off or maybe not do something quite right and still win because it was a gimme. There are no gimmes now.”

Friday’s opponent certainly won’t be. Stickley, who is 5-2 overall, is slated to wrestle Illinois’ Travis Piotrowski, who’s ranked 13th nationally by Trackwrestling. Piotrowski will be the second returning NCAA qualifier Stickley has wrestled this season (Buffalo’s Kyle Akins was the first; he beat Stickley 6-0).

It will be a good barometer for Stickley to see how far he’s come, and how much further he can still go.

“We always go in every day to improve and wrestle hard,” added Michael Kemerer, Iowa’s starting 157-pounder. “As the season goes on, competition is going to keep increasing, so we all have to raise our level and be ready to step out on the mat.

“Just need to go out and wrestle hard.”

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

No. 10 Iowa (4-0) vs. No. 16 Illinois (1-1)

WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City, Iowa
WATCH/LISTEN: Flowrestling and BTN Plus on BTN2Go/AM 800 KXIC

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