For Sam Stoll and Iowa, the Big Ten tournament represents first postseason opportunity

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Sam Stoll has won 62 matches during his Iowa wrestling career. The senior earned All-American honors last year, despite being one of the nation’s best heavyweights over the last four years — he’s currently ranked ninth nationally by Trackwrestling.

Earlier this week, Stoll stood inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena and acknowledged the hard truth that his time in an Iowa singlet is coming to an end. His opportunities are fewer now, beginning with this weekend’s Big Ten Championships in Minneapolis. 

“I think he realizes that he’s a fifth-year senior, and there’s no recourse here,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “This is it.

“I think Stoll probably realizes that more than he would probably like to let on.”

Iowa senior 285-pound Sam Stoll waves to fans during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual on Friday, Feb. 15, 2019 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Stoll was pre-seeded eighth entering this weekend. There is little chance that changes during the coaches’ seed meeting Friday afternoon. Even if it does, the Kasson, Minnesota native will have to navigate one of the deepest weights in the nation’s toughest wrestling conference.

In a way, Stoll embodies what the fifth-ranked Iowa wrestling team is up against this weekend.

It’s been a somewhat irregular season for the two-time NCAA qualifier. For the third time in four years, Stoll has dealt with a lower-body injury. After the gunshot wound episode last summer, he eased his way back to the mat. He’s wrestled just 11 times this year, with an 8-3 record.

Stoll didn’t debut this season until Iowa’s dual against Iowa State on Dec. 1. He didn’t see the mat again until the Midlands Championships at the end of the month, and wrestled just twice. He returned for good midway through January, but dropped three of five matches in February.

“You talk about adversity, and that’s never fun,” Brands said. “He is a tough, tough man. He’s a man’s man, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He’s grown a lot.

“He’s dealt with a lot. He’s like the energizer bunny. Just keeps on going — boom, boom, boom.”

Iowa's Sam Stoll reacts after getting pushed off the mat during a match at 285 against Maryland during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.


The Big Ten boasts nine heavyweights ranked in the top-15 nationally, according to Trackwrestling. If the pre-seeds hold, Stoll could see Minnesota’s top-ranked Gable Steveson, a true freshman who’s 27-0 with 17 bonus-point wins, in the quarterfinals. Stoll needs at least a seventh-place to automatically qualify for the NCAA Championships. There is no easy path.

In much the same way, the Big Ten tournament will reveal a lot about these Hawkeyes.

They’ll finally get to wrestle against top-ranked Penn State, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 4 Michigan, teams they didn’t see during the regular season due to the Big Ten’s scheduling. These teams, as well as a handful more, will be Iowa’s primary competition for a team trophy two weeks from now at the NCAA Championships in Pittsburgh.

“We’re excited to see them,” Brands said. “We would be excited to see them again and again and again … it’s that time of the year. It’s the next thing, but they know it’s more important so things just naturally ramp up — which, it does for everybody this time of the year.

“Our best wrestling has to be now. That’s not putting pressure on anybody. That’s just what you do when you’re a competitor.”

The Hawkeyes inserted themselves firmly into the NCAA trophy conversation throughout 2018-19. They went 14-1 in duals and beat six teams currently ranked in Trackwrestling’s top 15. They earned a share of the Big Ten regular season crown. They won another Midlands team title, outscoring the field by 64.5 points.

But the season has been rocky at times, too.

Iowa shut down Michael Kemerer, a two-time All-American, in November due to injury. As many as four different guys wrestled at 174 pounds in his place. Austin DeSanto’s antics defined much of January. Max Murin and Vince Turk traded starts at 141 in February. The Hawkeyes’ biggest dual of the season, against No. 3 Oklahoma State, resulted in a 27-12 defeat.

By the time Iowa takes the mat in Minneapolis, it will have been two weeks since the loss to the Cowboys, yet another team expected to contend later this month. Brands said his team moved past the loss almost immediately, zeroing in on the opportunity the Big Ten tournament represents.

“We want to make a statement because we haven’t faced a lot of the teams that we’re going to face there,” Iowa sophomore Alex Marinelli, ranked second nationally at 165, added, “but we want to make a statement that we are the Iowa Hawkeyes, and that we can be Big Ten champs.”

Iowa's Sam Stoll, right, wrestels Indiana's Fletcher Miller at 285 during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual on Friday, Feb. 15, 2019 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

A strong performance this weekend will set Iowa up for another in two weeks. Stoll faces the same challenge. The Hawkeyes need him to bolster their odds for an NCAA trophy. Last year, he recorded three pins and took fifth at the national tournament. He earned the Gorriaran Trophy as a result, an award given to the wrestler with the most pins at the NCAA Championships.

Back inside Carver, Stoll discussed the adversity he’s faced throughout his career and how this weekend is the beginning of the end. There’s no reason to hold back, he said. Iowa will field a team again next year, but he has just three weeks left to turn his goals into accomplishments.

“It definitely means a lot more knowing that I’m not going to be able to strap it up in the Iowa singlet again after these next couple of weeks,” Stoll said. “There’s a little more emphasis there.

“I haven’t won one yet, and this is my last shot.”

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

2019 Big Ten Championships

WHEN: March 9-10
WHERE: Williams Arena, in Minneapolis, Minnesota
WATCH: Big Ten Network will provide live coverage of the finals at 3 p.m. on Sunday

Iowa Pre-Seeds and NCAA bids

  • 125: Spencer Lee, 2-seed (9 bids at weight)
  • 133: Austin DeSanto, 2-seed (8)
  • 141: Max Murin, 7-seed (9)
  • 149: Pat Lugo, 3-seed (6)
  • 157: Kaleb Young, 5-seed (9)
  • 165: Alex Marinelli, 2-seed (9)
  • 174: Mitch Bowman, 10-seed (8)
  • 184: Cash Wilcke, 5-seed (8)
  • 197: Jacob Warner, 3-seed (5)
  • 285: Sam Stoll, 8-seed (7)