By James Geerdes
It all came down to Sam Stoll.
The Hawkeye heavyweight strode onto the mat and into the tipping point in Iowa wrestling’s conference home-opener against Illinois on the evening of Dec. 1 when he faced off with Illinois big man Deuce Rachal.
Although the night in Carver-Hawkeye will be remembered for Stoll’s performance, the lackluster Iowa wrestling preceding it was stunning. Iowa was consistently at the wrong end of the scoreboard. And one word seemingly categorized its evening: slow.
“We were struggling offensively,” head coach Tom Brands said. “And it doesn’t take a great wrestling mind to see that … Those guys were athletic, and points were hard to come by. But that’s not where we should be struggling.”
After the first three bouts, Iowa was down 9-0.
True freshman Justin Stickley lost via decision to No. 13 Travis Piotrowski, 7-4, to open the evening. Iowa’s No. 18 133-pounder Phillip Laux lost to Dylan Duncan, 6-1. And 141-pounder Vince Turk was outwrestled by Mike Carr, 7-5.
Iowa’s highly ranked heart of the lineup came and left quietly when No. 2 Brandon Sorensen beat No. 20 Eric Barone, 4-1. No. 3 Michael Kemerer won via decision against No. 17 Kyle Langenderfer, 4-1. But Iowa was still down 9-6 after its biggest guns left the mat.
Kaleb Young got the call for the Hawkeyes for the third week in a row, and Illinois’ No. 2 Isaiah Martinez wrestled up to his ranking. After 11 takedowns, Martinez left the mat with a tech fall and a final score of 23-8. Iowa was down 14-6.
Joey Gunther found Iowa’s mojo at 174 when he beat David Riojas by decision, 6-1.
With two weights left, Iowa was down 14-9 and needed a win and bonus points to secure 20-straight victories in conference-openers.
Cash Wilcke entered the ring and pulled out a nail-biter in sudden victory with a takedown. Iowa was down 17-12, still needed bonus points to win, and hope was fading in Carver. Yet the crowd was at its loudest.
“They came in with the strategy to slow us down,” Brands said. “We train to get to our offense, and that’s what we have to do. We have to not worry about their game plan and get to our stuff.”
Stoll walked onto the mat, not worried, and delivered. With Iowa needing points, the heavyweight pinned Rachal in 2:02.
“I know if I go out there and wrestle at a high pace for seven minutes, things will take care of themselves …” Stoll said. “I’m going to go wrestle at a really high pace. My goal is to pin every guy I face. I know that if I wrestle the way I should, things will fall into place.”
With the final whistle, Carver erupted, signaling 20-straight conference-opening wins, even if it was shakier than most would like.