Despite Joe Lemerise's tenacity and dominance on the mat, what stands out most might be his knee brace.

The brace is soft and used solely for comfort after his knee became sore last year, but it is a reminder of the adversity Lemerise had to overcome before emerging as a Cherokee standout and setting a school record for pins a season ago.

"I'm just glad it never became as serious as my other injuries from freshman and sophomore year," Lemerise said. "But it reminds me a little bit."

Lemerise wrestled in only 30 matches in his freshman and sophomore seasons because of two injuries. He suffered a broken hip after 19 matches in his freshman year. The following season, he appeared ready to break out, starting 8-2. But a broken foot derailed his season.

"It was very hard, especially when I broke my foot," Lemerise said. "It felt like I had to start all over again."

Aided by daily visits to rehab, Lemerise returned to wrestle in districts. However, after he missed most of the season, his conditioning hindered him.

Lemerise spent the following summer and fall wrestling to prepare for his junior campaign, with a sense that he had something to prove.

"I felt very good sophomore year up until my injury," Lemerise said. "Going into last year, I felt like I had to at least make it through the season. No matter how I did or what place in districts I did, I had to complete the season."

"Some kids can be frustrated by adversity," Cherokee coach Michael Booth said. "You definitely have to admire his grit and fortitude. I don't think he missed a beat coming back."

Lemerise stayed healthy for his junior campaign and delivered on the promise of his sophomore season. He went 36-4 and set a school record with 23 pins, the record-setting fall coming in the district semifinals and earning him a trip to states.

While Lemerise emerged out of nowhere after two incomplete seasons, he had made his mark by year's end.

"I think I caught a couple kids by surprise, maybe one of the 23 kids I pinned," Lemerise said. "By the end of the season, everyone knew who I was."

"Obviously, he was a kid coming in who never made it out of districts," Booth said. "But he turned some heads when teams saw him compete."

Lemerise no longer is catching anyone by surprise as a senior, and he has picked up where he left off last season. He won his first four matches and was a Pine Barrens Tournament champion for the second straight year.

While it is hard to forget about Lemerise's injuries completely, they are quickly becoming a distant memory.

"I do still think about it, but I am confident now because of last season," Lemerise said.