Inside Brandon Sorensen's last chance to cement his Iowa wrestling legacy with NCAA gold
The Monday before his final NCAA wrestling tournament, Brandon Sorensen stands inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena’s first-floor media room and talks about urgency.
The senior 149-pounder has been consistent during his time at Iowa, but with just one tournament remaining, his voice is sharp and direct.
“The only thing that changes is you don’t have anything to lose,” he says. “Just go out there and give it everything you’ve got. Not holding anything back. Letting it fly. Fighting every second. All 7 minutes, or longer if it needs to be.”
Sorensen possesses one of the all-time great Iowa wrestling careers. He enters this week’s NCAA Championships with 121 wins, currently 18th in program history. He is in line to become a four-time All-American, an achievement shared by just 19 other Hawkeye wrestlers.
Of that list, only two — Mike DeAnna and Mike Mena — didn’t win individual national titles. Sorensen hopes to avoid becoming the third. His goal has been well-known, and behind closed doors, it’s become his primary source of motivation.
“We’ve talked about Brandon Sorensen’s legacy here, and how it’s much more than his winning ways,” Iowa coach Tom Brands says. “But he wants his legacy to be, from his perspective, more meaningful than just these numbers behind his name. He wants to be on par with the best.
“He knows that he probably needs to stand on that top stand. I know what he’s after.”
As this conversation continues, a familiar name pops up — Zain Retherford, a senior at Penn State, winner of the last two NCAA titles at 149 pounds, and owner of an 89-match winning streak.
Of Sorensen’s 15 career losses, six have come to Retherford. Their first match came in the finals of the 2016 Big Ten Conference Tournament. On the center mat inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Retherford used a first-period takedown and a third-period rideout to win 4-0.
It was workmanlike. Sorensen left the mat frustrated. He knew then that Retherford would be in his path to a national title in two weeks’ time.
Two years later, he remains in pursuit of that goal.
“I’m always working to better myself,” Sorensen says. “Not only for (Retherford), but for a lot of other guys. It’s not just one guy at the weight class that you have to go through. It’s one match at a time. The brackets are out. The first guy, that’s who we’re looking at right now.
“But yeah, that’s the big opponent that’s been in my way, and something that’s driving me, for sure.”
A wrestler’s beginning
On the NCAA Championship stage inside Madison Square Garden, Retherford widened the gap on Sorensen. ESPN shows a graphic early in their match that displays each wrestler’s “Keys To Victory.” Sorensen’s says, “Gotta get away.” The announcers praise Retherford, relaying how he once took a punch from a Russian at a prestigious freestyle wrestling tournament.
Retherford corrals two takedowns for a 4-1 lead after the first period. He scores another in the second and one more in the third, and wins 10-1. Retherford gets his hand raised, an NCAA champion. Sorensen walks off toward comprehension.
“Umm …” Sorensen began afterward when asked what he can do to close the gap on Retherford. “You know, maybe just really grabbing the guy and holding onto him. Coming into him more first. That’s something I’m going to be working on throughout the whole year.
“We’ll figure that out.”
The beginning of a wrestling career looks like blood and broken furniture.
Sorensen and older brother, Blake, were rambunctious kids growing up in the country outside Cedar Falls, and often made a mess of their home basement. So Dwight, their father and a former wrestler, decided to help them channel that energy.
In the backyard, Dwight built a wrestling room. Later, he added a weight room. It became the home of the Cedar Valley Mat Club, which housed many of northeast Iowa’s top wrestlers and fueled Denver-Tripoli’s success earlier this decade.
Some of the state’s best trained in that room, including Dylan Peters, Gunnar and Levi Wolfensperger and Eric Thompson. Those four names alone combined for eight individual state titles. Blake Sorensen was a four-time medalist and won 160 matches.
Then Brandon Sorensen came and lapped everybody. He graduated as one of Iowa’s 27 four-time state champions. His 208 career victories was a state record until Union’s Max Thomsen surpassed him two years later.
“We had a lot of titles in that room, and success breeds success,” Dwight says. “(Brandon) wrestled everybody.”
Sorensen worked hard to surpass his older teammates. Blake says his younger brother often stayed after practice to polish techniques and positioning. After duals, Sorensen sometimes worked on shot set-ups in the practice room or ran a few miles on the treadmill at home.
“If he didn’t get something down right away, or he didn’t feel good about a workout,” Blake continues, “he’d go back and work until he got it right and felt good about it.”
‘A calm intensity’
Sorensen nearly got Retherford inside Carver in the 2017 Iowa-Penn State dual. He employs a higher pace, putting his hands on Retherford’s head 15 times in the first 10 seconds. After a minute, Retherford finishes a single-leg for two, but Sorensen escapes 6 seconds later.
“Gotta get away.”
With 54 seconds left in the first, Sorensen forces his ties, drops to a single-leg and scores. Retherford gets to his feet quickly, making it 3-3 after one, and the 14,311 inside Carver were in full-throated roar.
Could this be the time?
The two trade escapes in the second and third periods. Sorensen strikes again, with under a minute to go and leads 6-4. Retherford escapes, then turns into a shot and scores with 17 seconds left for a 7-6 lead. Sorensen gets out to make it 7-all.
The first sudden victory goes nowhere. Both escape in the first tiebreaker, 8-all. The second sudden victory also went scoreless. Retherford rides out Sorensen for 30 seconds; Sorensen intentionally releases Retherford for the final 30 seconds, but can’t score.
Retherford wins 9-8.
The crowd drops to a whisper.
“Sorensen showed he can escape and he showed he can take Zain Retherford down,” Brands says afterward. “But he’s not about moral victories.”
Chris Krueger, Denver’s longtime wrestling coach, first met Sorensen in fifth grade, and remembers seeing a “calm intensity” about him then. Not much has changed in the decade since.
“He’s calm all the time, but he’s also intense, and it’s hard to explain that, but that’s just the way he is,” Krueger says. “He always appears relaxed, but when he steps on the mat, he’s able to flip that switch.”
There’s a story here. During Sorensen’s junior season in high school, he stayed at 132 pounds so he could wrestle Assumption’s Topher Carton, a future teammate at Iowa. Carton was seeking his fourth state title, having already won two in Illinois for Rock Island Alleman, and his third in Iowa.
After two grueling days inside Wells Fargo Arena, Sorensen and Carton both reached the Class 2A final. Before their match, Krueger remembers Carton coming into the same warm-up area as Sorensen, and drilling nonstop as if to intimidate him.
Sorensen won 3-1.
“Brandon was sitting there laughing 20 minutes before his state championship match,” Krueger says. “He didn’t let anything around him bother him. He was just staying within himself. We’ve used that as an example for our current guys — just stay relaxed and loose and have fun.”
For Sorensen, winning a third state title, and eventually a fourth, was what he expected of himself. There was no reason to celebrate winning a state title. He had bigger goals in mind.
During Sorensen’s senior year, filmmaker Tim Jackson followed him and Creston’s Jake Marlin to chronicle their chase to win their fourth state titles. (Both ultimately did.) In the film, titled “Wrestling with Iowa,” Sorensen went to a local youth club to teach technique and answered questions afterward.
One youngster raised his hand and asked, “Does Superman wear Brandon Sorensen pajamas?”
Everybody laughed. Even Sorensen thought it was funny.
“No,” he told the kid. “I doubt that one.”
“It’s just not in his nature,” Krueger says. “We had to work hard to make sure he put four fingers in the air after he won his fourth state title. We didn’t want him to look like it didn’t mean a lot to him or that he didn’t care.
“He’s very goal-oriented, very driven and always focused on accomplishing those goals. And he’s always had the goal of being a national champion at the collegiate level.”
‘He left something undone’
Retherford left no doubts in the 2017 NCAA semis. After a minute, he runs through Sorensen for a takedown and immediately throws his legs. Retherford uses a cross-face to force Sorensen over for back points, then readjusts and grabs Sorensen’s right ankle for a bow-and-arrow-type hold.
Sorensen had a choice to make right then — tear his knee, or get pinned. The ref’s hand slaps the mat with 23 seconds left in the first period. It remains the only time Sorensen’s been pinned during his college career.
Sorensen’s trek to the top of college wrestling began the moment he joined the Iowa wrestling program. During his true freshman season, he worked with Brent Metcalf and Dan Dennis, then members of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club.
Metcalf and Dennis combined for 177 career wins and four appearances in the NCAA finals, and Sorensen was eager to learn. There were daily practice-room battles and lessons. Metcalf and Dennis tormented Sorensen at times, but he never wavered.
“He loved that,” Dwight Sorensen says. “He learned a lot from those guys.”
More than anything, Sorensen learned to focus solely on what he needs to do in order to get where he wants. This was a lesson he already had in tow, but working with Metcalf and Dennis amplified it.
Now, four years later, those are lessons Sorensen is passing down to the younger Iowa wrestlers. It is more so by example than it is by discussion.
From true freshman Spencer Lee: “Laser focus. Everything he does, it’s like he has blinders on. He sees one thing, and he’s going to get it done.”
From sophomore Michael Kemerer: “It’s real workmanlike and consistent. When you talk about great athletes, they don’t get too low or too high. They stay down the middle and do what they have to do every day. That’s exactly how he is.”
From redshirt freshman Alex Marinelli: “He’s focused right now. He knows he’s there. He just needs to take him down — and you know who I’m talking about.”
Indeed, Retherford has been Sorensen’s kryptonite. Only one other wrestler has beaten Sorensen multiple times during his Iowa career: Jason Tsirtsis, formerly of Northwestern now with Arizona State, who’s beaten Sorensen twice. Sorensen has gotten him back four times.
“I’m not going to call it a rivalry (with Retherford), but when you have that familiarity, and you’re a competitor, and you come to work every day the right way,” Brands says, “Brandon Sorensen knows what he’s capable of and he has to go and do it. This is his last go-around.
“If you remember his press conference (in East Lansing), which you do, he felt like he left something undone in Michigan. And that’s a good thing.”
A whole 7 minutes
An announced 15,998 packed the Bryce Jordan Center to watch top-ranked Penn State host Iowa last month, and Retherford-Sorensen V was one of the marquee bouts. Retherford connects on a sweep single for two with 1:18 left in the first. Sorensen escapes, but not until after Retherford accumulates 1:06 of riding time.
Retherford adds two more minutes with a second-period rideout, then picks Sorensen’s knee for another takedown in the third. Sorensen escapes with a minute remaining, but can’t find an opening to get two hands to the leg. Retherford wins 6-2, and the Nittany Lion faithful roar on.
They meet again 22 days later in the Big Ten finals. Sorensen can’t get his hands on Retherford’s legs, but his shots are deep enough to keep Retherford honest. The couple of shots Retherford attempts, Sorensen counters with strong hips. The opening three minutes end scoreless.
Sorensen choses down to start the second, and Retherford makes him pay, using a thigh-pry and heavy pressure to compile two minutes of riding time. Retherford escapes early in the third and keeps Sorensen at bay as the clock ticks down. Sorensen nearly scores late on a slide-by, but Retherford hips out of danger and wins 2-0.
“That’s what it’s going to take,” Sorensen says afterward. “Flurries. The whole time, 7 minutes. Putting together 7 minutes of it. Not just one period of flurries.
“It’s going to take a whole 7 minutes.”
Prior to the 149-pound final at the Big Ten tournament, Sorensen warmed up on the floor of the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Michigan, wearing a striped headband. He says Brands watched “Wrestling with Iowa” sometime before the tournament, and saw that Sorensen wore them before big tournaments.
“Tom asked, ‘Where’s that at?’” Sorensen says later. “So I decided to bring it back. At state, we all wore headbands. I’m pretty sure it’ll be at nationals.”
When the interview concludes, Sorensen heads up to the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex. It’s almost time for a workout. This week, he could wrestle Retherford for a seventh time, likely in the finals on Saturday night. Retherford is the one seed at 149; Sorensen is the two.
He goes up a flight of stairs, turns right and disappears into the practice room to train for his last chance at NCAA gold.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.