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Iowa’s heavyweight assesses his team’s win over Illinois on Friday. Cody Goodwin / The Register

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — The hero of last Friday’s wrestling victory over Illinois is the same guy who continues to wear a brace on his left knee. So, naturally, Sam Stoll was standing in the tunnel underneath Carver-Hawkeye Arena, fielding questions about his health as well as his big pin.

“It feels great,” Stoll said of his knee after his first-period fall sealed the Iowa wrestling team’s comeback victory over Illinois last week. “If it didn’t feel good, I wouldn’t be out there.”

His performance last Friday was simply a continuation of his hot start to the 2017-18 season. Stoll, Iowa’s junior heavyweight, is now 5-0 on the year with four pins — including three that have come in the first period.

In the eyes of coach Tom Brands, Stoll looks like he’s returning to the form that led Iowa to recruit Stoll out of Kasson-Mantorville High School. He graduated a two-time Minnesota state champ, ending his career with 63 straight pins.

Stoll brought that same intensity to the Iowa wrestling room immediately. He secured 11 pins during his redshirt campaign en route to an 18-5 overall record. He followed up with a team-high 10 more during the 2015-16 season as a starter, during which he was tabbed as an All-America contender.

But a knee injury at the 2016 NWCA National Duals derailed an otherwise dominant inaugural varsity season. Eleven months later, Stoll tore the same anterior cruciate ligament after just nine matches, sending him to the bench for another nine months.

“A lot of guts. A lot of patience. A lot of doing things right,” Brands said of Stoll’s return to the mat. “A lot of open-mindedness. A lot of dealing with frustration. But if I’m frustrated, I have two responses. I can either let it derail me or let it propel me to greatness.

“That remains to be seen, but we’ve never had an issue with Sam Stoll on how he’s going to compete, ever. He’s been a very good representative of our program. He’s been hurt in two postseasons, and this is his third year. He’s really done some things. We just have to keep doing what we’re doing.”

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Head coach Tom Brands assesses his team’s performance. Cody Goodwin / The Register

Stoll’s wrestling has been impressive thus far. His four pins are the most among the regular starters. His fifth win was over Buffalo’s Jake Gunning, a 4-3 overtime victory, at the Iowa City Duals. Gunning is ranked 20th at heavyweight by Trackwrestling; Stoll is ranked 18th.

His pin against Illinois made up for an otherwise less-than-ideal showing from the Hawkeyes. The Illini looked as if they might walk out of Carver with a win after taking the first three matches decisively. Stoll had other plans, pinning Deuce Rachal in two minutes and two seconds to turn a 17-12 team deficit into an 18-17 victory.

Iowa's Cash Wilcke beat Andre Lee in overtime at 197 to set up Stoll’s dual-winning pin. He said, “(Illinois) came in with a strategy to slow us down, I think. We train to get to our offense, and that’s what we have to do.”

Stoll echoed those thoughts, especially with a tough schedule upcoming. This weekend, the 10th-ranked Hawkeyes (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) will make an East Coast trip to wrestle No. 8 Rutgers and No. 29 Maryland. Youssif Hemida, the Terrapins’ eighth-ranked heavyweight, awaits Stoll on Sunday.

Perhaps another solid win then, or even a great showing at Midlands later this month, will silence all questions about Stoll’s knee. His ultimate goal, of course, is to become an All-American in March.

“I know if I go out there and wrestle a high pace for seven minutes, things will take care of themselves,” Stoll said. “My goal is to pin every guy I wrestle. So I know if I wrestle the way I should, things will fall into place.”

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

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