Tom Brands handed his prized freshman a black singlet four years ago and pondered the possibility of mortgaging a year in the future for immediate gains.
Derek St. John was Iowa’s best wrestler at 157 pounds as a true freshman. He won the team’s wrestle-off bracket in his third month on campus, placed fifth that year at the Midlands Championships and established himself as the top solution at the weight where the Hawkeyes needed help most.
The temptation of plugging St. John into the lineup reached the point that Brands used one of his team’s 15 roster spots for the National Duals on the rookie.
“I was willing, I was ready to let it fly,” St. John said. “I had a lot of great wrestlers around me, an extremely talented team, a tough team, a winning team, and I wanted to throw my hat in there. But they didn’t think I was ready.”
So St. John redshirted while Iowa won its third straight NCAA title in 2010, and because Brands didn’t pull the trigger then, he still has the No. 1 157-pounder on his roster today.
The St. John story is relevant because the Hawkeyes are reliving it again.
Although Iowa isn’t the prohibitive title favorite like it was four years ago, true freshman Brandon Sorensen looks like the best wrestler at a weight where the Hawkeyes have been starving for success since Brent Metcalf’s eligibility clock expired. Iowa is the only Big Ten program that hasn’t had a 149-pound participant at the NCAA Championships during the past three seasons.
Predictably, the online “wrestle now or redshirt” debates proliferated as Sorensen reeled off six consecutive victories to place third at the Midlands, beating Virginia Tech All-American Zach Neibert and Iowa teammate Brody Grothus along the way.
“I think you have to put a team out there that can win the nationals, and then when you do that, you have to make the best decision at some weights where what’s our best choice?” Brands said. “It’s definitely an option, but as we say every year and even when we recruit, we’re not going to pull a guy without talking to parents, without talking to the kid, without everybody feeling good.”
It’s worth noting that none of the 80 Division-I All-Americans in 2013 was wrestling at the high school level the previous winter.
Sorensen said he’s on board with his coaches’ decision, but when asked if he was ready to be the starter, he said: “Probably not.”’
“I’ve still got a lot of things to work on,” he said. “Then again, yeah, I can go out there and battle. I can do that.”
At the very least, Grothus bought himself and the Hawkeyes more time by pinning No. 3 David Habat of Edinboro, beating No. 4 Jason Tsirtsis of Northwestern and wrestling with the grit he hadn’t shown earlier in the season.
Meanwhile, Iowa may have finally found a long-term solution at 149 or possibly the heir to St. John at 157 in Sorensen.
“He’s an extremely tough kid,” St. John said. “He’s a great wrestler. There’s a lot of similarities between the situation he’s in and where I came from. He’s going to continue to build and get better, and I look to see him on top of the podium someday.”
Iowa State’s Tanner Weatherman produced one of the top comebacks of the college season Wednesday in his opening-round bout at the Southern Scuffle. The sophomore 174-pounder scored 13 third-period points, turning a six-point deficit against Missouri’s Cody Johnston into a 13-10 win. … Northern Iowa recruit Josh Alber preserved his perfect prep record Saturday in the finals of the Dvorak Memorial. The Dakota (lll.) High School senior won a 5-3 overtime decision against Illinois-bound Jered Cortez, the top-ranked wrestler in the country at 132 pounds. Alber is now 171-0 in high school. … Michigan heavyweight Adam Coon became the first true freshman to win a Midlands title since Iowa’s Steve Mocco in 2002.
Iowa prep teams return to the mat this week, and the top squads in the state aren’t easing back into competition. Bettendorf, Mediapolis and Alburnett — the three top-ranked teams — will compete Friday and Saturday at the Clash in Rochester, Minn. Eleven of the 32 teams in the star-studded dual tournament claimed state championships last season. The field is headlined by three of the top seven teams in InterMat’s Fab 50 — No. 2 Oak Park (Ill.) River Forest, No. 4 Apple Valley (Minn.) and No. 7 Bergen (N.J.) Catholic. Meanwhile, third-ranked Southeast Polk will aim to repeat as the Cheesehead champions in Kaukauna, Wis. Nolan Hellickson was the lone champion for the Rams last year when they conquered the deep field.
Five wrestlers with Iowa ties who raised their national profiles at the Midlands Championships:
1. Iowa’s Thomas Gilman — Went from No. 2 on the Iowa depth chart to No. 3 in the national rankings after knocking off NCAA champ Jesse Delgado and winning the 125-pound title.
2. Northern Iowa’s Joe Colon — He was already known as a dangerous 133-pounder. Now, he’s seen as an NCAA title threat.
3. Iowa’s Brandon Sorensen — True freshman showed skill in all three positions during his run to third at 149.
4. Grand View’s Chad Lowman — Four weeks after sustaining a concussion in a car wreck, the NAIA champ placed eighth at 165.
5. Iowa’s Brody Grothus — Pinned No. 3 David Habat of Edinboro and beat No. 4 Jason Tsirtsis of Northwestern on his way to fourth at 149.