Key to 2015 championship success for Iowa: no hesitation

Updated: January 14, 2015

By Mike Finn, WIN Editor

In the last two weeks, Iowa’s Brandon Sorensen has knocked off two former All-Americans — Ohio State’s Hunter Stieber, 9-7, on Jan. 4, and Oklahoma State’s Josh Kindig, 6-1, on Jan. 11 (above) — with both 149-pound victories coming on the road.

Such impressive wins — that helped the Hawkeyes beat the Buckeyes, 18-14, and Cowboys, 30-7, and take over the top spot in WIN’s team dual rankings with an 8-0 mark — lead to the natural question: Can this redshirt freshman from Cedar Falls, Iowa, be a contender to win the national championship at this weight class this March in St. Louis, the site of the NCAAs?

“If he’s not thinking that way, you need to have a conversation with him,” said Iowa coach Tom Brands on Jan.14. “I pretty sure it’s in his mind, he’s on that mission.”

Tom Brands

Tom Brands

Sorensen, named Big Ten Wrestler of the Week, Jan. 12, has not been perfect this season — going 22-3 heading into Iowa’s Jan. 16 home dual with Illinois … and he did lose Edinboro’s David Habat, 3-2, at the recent Midlands, Dec. 29-30, when the Hawkeye finished third.

But all that loss did was wake up the Hawkeye wrestler, who also finished third in the 2013 Midlands … and made some people think that Iowa might take the redshirt off the former Iowa state champion from Denver High School … until Brands saw a few comments from Sorensen.

“After the (2013) Midlands, it was on our mind, especially with where we were at,” recalled Brands, who was deciding on whether he should insert Sorensen into the weight class.

“There were some quotes from him about, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready but I’ll do whatever they ask me to do,’ ” Brands said. “That’s when you put the brakes on that. If there is hesitation, you don’t do it. Looking into someone’s mind, are they gung-ho or not.”

Brands instead went with Brody Grothus, who did qualify for the 2014 NCAA tournament in Oklahoma City — where he went 1-2 — and was pegged the starter in 2014-15 before Sorensen took over the starting spot once the calendar turned to January.

“He has made the most of an opportunity and put an exclamation mark there,” Brands said. “When you get an opportunity, seize it. We know what’s under the hood there and we have to keep it going.”

Brandon Sorensen

Brandon Sorensen

“I was not disappointed (about not starting in 2013-14),” said Sorensen, who will get a shot at 2014 NCAA champion Jason Tsirtsis, Jan. 23, when Northwestern comes to Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “It was my redshirt year and I was growing. It was always in my mind that I was going to be in the line-up this year.”

Even after Iowa won the recent Midlands with a record number of points and four champions, Brands was still preaching for his wrestlers to produce more points.

The ninth-year Iowa coach may have finally seen such an effort in Stillwater, Okla., last Sunday, when his team not only won eight bouts but scored 83 points in the ten matches. And one of those bouts saw one of the victors — 141-pound Josh Dziewa — trail 5-2 before the senior from Yardley, Pa., rallied to pin OSU’s Dean Heil in 6:27.

“Dziewa stayed in there and put a ride on the guy in the second period,” Brands recalled. “That made a big difference in that match. Instead of half-riding him and letting him go, he made the guy work hard on the bottom position and I think that helped him a lot. That’s what you have to do: find ways to finish periods strong and put that into the seven minutes and you will come out on top.”

Iowa also moved within two points (87-85.5) of passing top-ranked Minnesota in WIN’s Tournament Power Index — and indicator of where teams will finish in the NCAA tournament — and are also picked to claim seven All-Americans to five by Minnesota. (The teams are scheduled to meet in a dual meet, Jan. 30, at Minneapolis.)

In addition to Sorensen (ranked fifth by WIN), other wrestlers ranked in the Top 8 of their weight class include: 125-pound Thomas Gillman (fifth), 133-pound Cory Clark (fifth), 174-pound Mike Evans (second), 184-pound Sam Brooks (eighth), 197-pound Nathan Burak (fourth) and heavyweight Bobby Telford (second).

Iowa, which will mark 40 years since Iowa’s first NCAA title on Jan. 23 when the Hawkeyes host Northwestern, has won 23 NCAA all-time championship, including three under Brands (2008, ’09 and ’10). But the Hawkeyes have settled for third, third, fourth and fourth, respectively, the past four Nationals where Big Ten-rival Penn State won team titles.

Is this Hawkeye team as good as the ones that won team championships for Brands half a decade ago?

“We will learn that along the way,” Brands said. “We have to keep doing what we’ve been doing from a winning point of view … and adding to that by slamming the door on things where it’s a total team effort.

“Those three (NCAA championship) teams had a lot of firepower. If we can keep it rolling and stay consistent where we’ve done well and bring it up a bit where we need to bring it we could put this team in that conversation.”