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Leistikow: On Austin DeSanto's knee injury, and how Iowa wrestling should proceed

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Most of the 14,905 fans who poured into Carver-Hawkeye Arena last Friday night hoped to see a coronation, a changing of the guard in college wrestling.

And although Iowa did upend Penn State 19-17 in the most-watched wrestling dual in Big Ten Network history, the result was accompanied by a cloud of Hawkeye concern.

Just how bad was the right knee injury suffered by Austin DeSanto?

And, as importantly, how will and should Tom and Terry Brands handle it?

Let’s start with what we know.

We know DeSanto twice crumpled to the mat against Penn State's Roman Bravo-Young in clear agony. We know he was hobbling badly, two hours later. We know that head coach Tom Brands, on Tuesday, said DeSanto was back in the room and “handling it very well.” We know that DeSanto isn’t in the Iowa lineup for Saturday’s dual at Michigan.

Although we can’t 100% rule out the possibility of a long-term absence, there isn’t any smoke coming from Iowa City that DeSanto’s injury is season-ending.

Here’s one more thing we know about DeSanto, per Brands: He has been extremely healthy throughout the course of his wrestling life. Dealing with pain is new for the 21-year-old junior. That means DeSanto's mental strength could be as important as knee strength in his potential build-up toward the be-all, end-all March 19-21 NCAA Championships in Minneapolis.

How should Iowa proceed?

Let's suppose that DeSanto is nicked (a general term Brands often uses, because he hates to talk about injuries) but not to the point of shutting it down for the season. 

One school of thought would be to keep DeSanto out of Iowa's final three duals — while working strength back into his knee in practice — before returning at the March 7-8 Big Ten Conference Championships at Rutgers. That'd give him 36 days between bouts.

Austin DeSanto, who knocked off then-No. 1 Seth Gross in Iowa City on Dec. 1, has the firepower to make a run to an NCAA championship at 133 pounds if healthy. He'll be trying to get back to as close to 100% as possible for March.

Strap a brace on that right knee and see what he can muster up at the RAC. Do what's needed to secure a few early wins against lesser opponents, then sit out the rest of the tournament. He's still ranked No. 3 nationally by Trackwrestling.

That type of plan shouldn’t hurt DeSanto’s NCAA seeding. If he could stay in the 4/5 range, he'll have an excellent path to the NCAA semifinals. That was the exact approach Penn State 157-pounder Jason Nolf used after suffering a late-January knee injury in 2018. Nolf returned at Big Tens, got to the semifinals, then forfeited to preserve that knee for the NCAAs. Nolf was still rewarded with a No. 3 seed and went on to win an NCAA title.

But every individual case is unique. That's where informed coaching comes in.

And in DeSanto’s case, he’s not a horse that would respond well to being cooped up in the stable. His high-octane pace is tone-setting in the Iowa wrestling room, and it was on display in a 12-takedown, 27-12 demolition of Ohio State's Jordan Decatur on Jan. 24.

As soon as possible, he's a horse that needs to run.

What history could tell us

Battling through injuries and pain is an unfortunate reality of high-level college wrestling, and the best often have to power through them to get to the top.

Three years ago in St. Louis, Iowa’s Cory Clark gutted through serious shoulder and wrist injuries to run the table against a stacked bracket to collect a 133-pound NCAA title.

Two years ago in Cleveland, Cornell freshman Yianni Diakomihalis unknowingly tore his ACL in the NCAA quarterfinals and won the 141-pound championship anyway.

Let’s rewind history to another example on the Brandses’ watch.

Back in the 2011-12 season, 157-pound sophomore Derek St. John suffered a knee injury in his 11th match. Rather than hold him out until the Big Tens, Brands brought St. John back to competition a few weeks earlier. Unbeaten to that point, St. John lost two of his first three comeback bouts, including one by major decision. He acknowledged then that it took time to learn how to adjust to wrestling with an injury.

St. John, known for toughness, adjusted well. He ran the table at the Big Ten championships, then rattled off four straight wins at the NCAAs before falling in the finals to Cornell’s Kyle Dake. It was quite the comeback.

And here was what Tom Brands said about that situation, exactly eight years ago — Feb. 6, 2012: "The progress has been good, and it has to do with the process starting the minute he walked off the mat … when he was injured. His mind has been in the right place."

Given that history, it wouldn't be a surprise if Brands brings back DeSanto sooner rather than later. Minnesota, which comes to Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Feb. 15, doesn’t have a wrestler ranked in Trackwrestling’s top 33 at 133. Oklahoma State, coming to town Feb. 23, has the nation’s No. 19 133-pounder. Either (or, ideally, both) would offer DeSanto a good opportunity to feed his competitive fire and to get a feel for what it will take for him to manage whatever's going on with his knee.

The stakes are high, for both DeSanto and the top-ranked Hawkeyes.

DeSanto is hungry after finishing fifth at NCAAs a year ago. He's only got two shots left at an NCAA title. This March represents one of them. He'll no doubt take his absolute best, most calculated swing at this. He won't sit idly by. 

For Iowa, every NCAA point is a precious commodity as it aims end No. 2 Penn State’s decade of dominance and win its first title since 2010. Before DeSanto's injury, 18 to 20 points at 133 pounds was a reasonable estimate. Now, the possibility of zero points at 133 exists.

Managing DeSanto's comeback is undeniably crucial for what's expected to be a two-horse NCAA team race.

All we can do now is wait and and see what happens next.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.