For the second time in three weeks, Brandon Sorensen is feeling the love from the Big Ten and being named Big Ten Wrestler of the Week:
Of course, the reason Sorensen keeps racking up Wrestler of the Week awards is the same reason he keeps rocketing up the rankings at 149 lbs: he keeps beating the guys ranked ahead of him. Two weeks ago, the Big Ten honored Sorensen after his impressive 6-1 win over then #3 Josh Kindig of Oklahoma State. This week, he's being honored for handing defending NCAA champion and top-ranked Jason Tsirtsis his first loss of the season, ending T-shirt's 40-match winning streak in the process. It might not have been the prettiest win ever -- Sorensen won 3-2 on a riding time point deep in overtime -- but it proved that Sorensen can win a difficult match against a top guy, even when he's not able to get his own offense clicking.
Meanwhile, all these wins over guys ranked ahead of him -- including Ohio State's Hunter Stieber, ranked #5 when Sorensen toppled him earlier this month -- have put Sorensen in a spot where it's going to be difficult for him to secure many more wins like that. That's because he's no longer looking up at the top guys at 149 -- they're looking up at him. In this week's rankings, InterMat moved him to #2 (behind Edinboro's Dave Habat, who handed Sorensen one of his two losses on the season), W.I.N. moved him up to #3 (behind Habat and Missouri's Drake Houdashelt), and Flo bumped him all the way up to #1 at 149. Heady days for young Mr. Sorensen.
It's hard to believe that a month ago we weren't even sure that Sorensen would be the starter at this weight; he and Brody Grothus (last year's starter at 149) appeared to be neck-and-neck for the starting gig leading into the Midlands Championships. Both Sorensen and Grothus dropped tight matches in the semifinals at 149 (Sorensen lost 3-2 to Habat, Grothus lost 3-2 in overtime to Tsirtsis), but Sorensen rebounded to place 3rd while Grothus injury defaulted out of the tournament, finishing 6th. It's hard to tell how Brands might have juggled the two of them in early January if Grothus hadn't gotten dinged up, but Sorensen has definitely made the most of his chance. He's seized the opportunity and put a stranglehold on the starting job... and along the way he's turned himself into one of the best 149ers in the country, too, capable of knocking off anyone at this weight.
Of course, before we get too starry-eyed imagining Sorensen's glittering future -- both this year and in the years to come -- it's worth remembering that January success doesn't necessarily forecast March glory. A year ago, Brody Grothus put together an impressive string of wins himself, toppling Habat and Tsirtsis at Midlands (on his way to a 4th place finish) and beating Josh Kindig in that installment of the Iowa-Oklahoma State dual meet. Then he lost back-to-back-to-back matches to Nebraska's Jake Sueflohn (then #5), Minnesota's Nick Dardanes (then #3), and Tsirtsis (then #4). He won a few more matches after that (including a memorable 17-14 thriller over Michigan's Eric Grajales), but scuffled to matching 1-2 performances at the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. January's promise did not turn into March's points.
Sorensen is not Grothus -- he takes fewer risks, exposes himself to danger less, and is stronger in his attacks from neutral -- but Grothus' end of season struggles should serve as a reminder that big wins early in the season can sometimes be an unreliable crystal ball for the future. The pressure ramps up in March at the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments and Sorensen has yet to experience that -- we have no idea how he might handle that pressure. That said, he handled Kindig on the Cowboy's own mat, came back to defeat Stieber on his own mat, and looked pretty composed at Midlands; Big Tens and NCAAs will be a step or three beyond that, but he's passed the early tests pretty well.
But there's no denying that Sorensen's stampede through the division so far also has us dreaming big: could Sorensen be the key to Iowa's national championship hopes in St. Louis in March? 149 was the lynchpin to Iowa's most recent national title three-peat; Iowa wrestling took off when a guy named Brent Metcalf became eligible and took the wrestling landscape by storm. It would be oh-so-fitting if Iowa was able to regain its spot atop the college wrestling world now that it has (seemingly) fixed its long-standing problem at 149. Brandon Sorensen is not Brent Metcalf, but he certainly looks like the best wrestler Iowa has had at 149 since Brent was here. For years, Iowa fans have been pining for respectability at 149 -- forget title contention, Iowa struggled to even qualify a wrestler for the NCAA Tournament at 149 for a few years -- and Sorensen appears to have smashed straight through respectability and maybe even ended up in title contention territory after all.
In truth, Sorensen's success at 149 alone won't power Iowa to a national title in a few months, just as Iowa's woes at 149 over the last several years weren't the only thing preventing them from bringing home more NCAA and Big Ten championships. Several weights have come up short for Iowa in recent years, not just 149; likewise, if Iowa is able to win a national title this year, it's probably going to be because of the quality of their talent across all ten weights. Still: it just feels right for Iowa to have a big-time winner again at 149. Keep the wins coming, Brandon.