Hawkeyes’ Big Ten hopes rest on Clark, Sorensen return to form

Chris Cuellar
Iowa's Brandon Sorensen grapples with Ohio State's Micah Jordan in a 149-pound match at Carver Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Friday, January 27, 2017.

Cory Clark and Brandon Sorensen know their recent performances have raised eyebrows and question marks.

But there’s a reason the two NCAA runners-up are still expected to help lead Iowa’s charge at this weekend’s Big Ten Wrestling Championships in Bloomington, Ind.

The usually rock-solid pair has been waiting for the postseason.

“Ever since I was a little kid I’ve always looked forward to tournaments,” Clark said Tuesday in Iowa City. “Duals are good, but I’ve always kind of been a tournament wrestler.

Iowa's Cory Clark wrestles Cornell's Nahshon Garrett during their NCAA championship bout on Saturday, March 19, 2016 in New York City. Garrett would go on to win 7-6.

“It’s a routine, my body just feels ready to go quicker. My mind feels confident. I’ve really looked forward to wrestling. And this is the first big tournament I’ve wrestled this season.”

The Hawkeyes have to see strong performances from all five of their returning All-Americans to stay close to top-ranked defending champion Penn State when the wrestling begins at 9 a.m. (CT) Saturday in Assembly Hall.

Clark won the Big Ten tournament last season at 133 pounds. Iowa’s only other defending conference champion is Sammy Brooks at 184.

“Great competitors sometimes are gamers,” Iowa head coach Tom Brands said. “Then there are great competitors where every event means something to them. Clark gives his all at every event, but I think the postseason is probably a little more special to him.

“Clark is a water-off-a-duck’s-back kind of guy.”

A shoulder injury has limited Clark’s competitive use all season, turning a steady two-time NCAA runner-up into a No. 3 seed at this weekend’s 14-team event. The Southeast Polk alum is 12-2, but hasn’t faced top-ranked Nathan Tomasello of Ohio State and lost to No. 2 seed Eric Montoya of Nebraska in the Feb. 12 dual.

Brands expects Clark to compete at their level, and called his health “all systems go” on Tuesday.

“It feels good to be where I’m at and have this opportunity in front of me,” Clark said.

“I get this pep in my step. I start feeling really good and I don’t really feel nervous at all. I almost feel relaxed and calmed by the competition.”

Sorensen (22-3) is stuck behind Penn State’s Zain Retherford yet again at 149. The Iowa junior took the defending national champ into overtime in their January dual meeting, but came up short in a 9-8 thriller. If both stars navigate their brackets, a rematch should be in the Big Ten finals.

The greater concern for the Hawkeyes was Sorensen’s recent slip at Edinboro, where he dropped his third overtime match of the season to eighth-ranked Patricio Lugo.

“My mindset heading in is that my record is 0-0,” Sorensen said. “Nothing before this really matters. Go out there, wrestle, be relaxed and get it done.”

Iowa fans know Sorensen can be technically sound and extremely competitive, but scoring in huge matches remains a hurdle. Those tense overtime losses have dropped him to No. 4 in the NCAA’s Ratings Percentage Index, which could trap him in a tough bracket in two weeks.

Even with the boosts top-seeded Thomas Gilman can explode for at 125, Michael Kemerer has added at 157 and Alex Meyer is capable of at 174, the Hawkeyes have to produce team points at 149.

“(Sorensen’s) best wrestling is ahead of him,” Brands said. “I believe that. I know what his capabilities are.”

Iowa is seeded in nine of the 10 weight classes this weekend. All matches prior to the finals can be streamed live on BTN Plus. The championship round will begin at 2 p.m. on Sunday and can be seen on BTN.

Iowa in tournament pre-seeds

Conference coaches vote to determine wrestler seeding ahead of the tournament, with the amount based on the NCAA’s qualifier allocation at each weight class. Top-ranked Thomas Gilman is Iowa’s lone No. 1 seed entering Saturday’s opening round.

125 — 1. Thomas Gilman, sr., 24-0

133 — 3. Cory Clark, sr., 12-2

141 — 6. Topher Carton, sr., 21-6

149 — 2. Brandon Sorensen, jr., 22-3

157 — 2. Michael Kemerer, r-fr., 25-1

165 — 5. Joey Gunther, r-fr., 17-6

174 — 5. Alex Meyer, sr., 20-5

184 — 2. Sam Brooks, sr., 21-2

197 — 7. Cash Wilcke, r-fr., 14-8

285 — NR Steven Holloway, r-fr.,6-10

Big Ten wrestling championships

When: Saturday and Sunday, March 4-5

Where: Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Ind.

Media: Finals on BTN, 2 p.m., Sunday; All other matches on BTN Plus.