Brandon Sorensen reaches Big Ten tournament finals, but Iowa wrestling struggles
EAST LANSING, Mich. — The senior leader of the Iowa wrestling team is trying his best to articulate a message to the rest of his teammates, and he begins by talking about how staying confident between the ears matters most.
This, he believes, is the best place to start.
“The big thing right now,” Brandon Sorensen said on Saturday evening, “is just staying sharp mentally.”
This particular response came in a question regarding the Hawkeyes’ overall performance on Day 1 of the 2018 Big Ten Wrestling Tournament. Here at the Breslin Center, things did not go very well, as Iowa sits in fourth place with 78 points, far behind the first-place Buckeyes (137.5). Penn State sits second with 124, followed by Michigan with an even 100.
Sorensen is the lone Iowa wrestler with an opportunity to win an individual conference title. The senior used back-to-back decisions Saturday to advance to the finals at 149 pounds. He will wrestle Zain Retherford, the nation’s top-ranked 149-pounder, on Sunday afternoon.
This will be Sorensen’s third trip to the conference tournament’s gold-medal match. He placed second in both 2015 and 2016 before slipping to third last season. Adjustments played a role in helping Sorensen navigate the bottom side of the bracket.
“Bittersweet, I don’t know if that’s the right word,” Sorensen said. “I’d love to have all 10 of us in the finals, you know? And I’m not focusing on the last time. It’s just going out there and letting everything fly, going all out and not holding anything back.
“Just need to let it out and score points.”
Sorensen took that lesson to heart after his first match. He put forth a lackluster performance, needing a late third-period takedown to beat Maryland’s Alfred Bannister 4-3 in the quarterfinals. He struggled getting to his shots throughout and actually gave up a takedown in the second period.
The Denver, Ia., product pressed onward, adding proper fuel but also making a few mental tweaks ahead of his semifinal bout against Northwestern’s Ryan Deakin. A month ago, Sorensen beat Deakin 5-4 after Deakin grabbed Sorensen’s headgear, a one-point technical violation, in sudden victory.
On Saturday evening, there was no such drama. After a scoreless first, Sorensen piled up three takedowns — including two in the third period — to stamp a dominant 7-2 decision that pushed him into the finals.
“A little more intensity,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said of Sorensen’s second match. “Controlling the tie. Much better, for sure. That’s important.”
The rest of the Iowa wrestling team did not have the same amount of success. A troublesome morning saw just four Hawkeye wrestlers advance to their respective semifinals while everybody else dropped to the wrestlebacks. Before Saturday’s morning session was over, Paul Glynn had already been eliminated at 133 pounds, ending his season.
There was a collective rebound, as the Hawkeyes ultimately won nine out of 10 consolation matches — and nine of the team’s 10 wrestlers have officially earned automatic bids to the NCAA Championships in Cleveland in two weeks — but the points aren’t worth near as much as they are on the front side.
Even more, the other three semifinal losers took away from the backside success. Spencer Lee gave up a third-period takedown and lost to Nathan Tomasello 2-1 at 125 pounds. Even worse, both Michael Kemerer and Sam Stoll were pinned in their semifinal matches at 157 and 285, respectively.
“The message to the team is to just fight,” said Alex Marinelli, who lost in the quarterfinals at 165 but bounced back with two wrestleback victories. “You guys know Iowa. This is not what we’re about right now. We just have to fight and show them what you’re made of.”
Sorensen imparted those same words to his teammates behind closed doors. Days like Saturday aren’t easy, he said, especially on a team that had five different wrestlers making their Big Ten tournament debuts. Just like how he adjusted from one match to the next, Sorensen talked to his team about moving forward from Session I to Session II.
“You have to bounce back and get the best you can get,” Sorensen continued. “They know that. They’ve been wrestling all their lives. They have to bounce back and get the best they can get, and moving forward into the future, we have a bigger tournament ahead of us.
“This isn’t the end-all. We need to recover some of those mistakes.”
The Hawkeyes have plenty of work to do if they want to catch Michigan in the battle for third. Eight Iowa wrestlers can score points ahead of the medal matches on Sunday, while just three Michigan wrestlers can do the same. It will take more victories. Bonus points will help.
Similarly, Sorensen has a tall task ahead of him on Sunday. Retherford, the two-time defending national champion at 149, has handed Sorensen five of his 14 career losses, the latest a 6-2 decision in the Iowa-Penn State dual last month.
If Sorensen is going to flip the script against one of the nation’s best pound-for-pound wrestlers, it will take adjustments and, as he hinted at before, staying sharp mentally.
“I know what’s ahead,” Sorensen said. “You have to do what you have to do. You have to leave it all out there and let it fly and leave nothing back.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
2018 Big Ten Wrestling Championships
1. Ohio State, 137.5
2. Penn State, 124
3. Michigan, 100
4. Iowa, 78
5. Minnesota, 57