District domination: Lions’ Brandt aims to win rare fourth title
Perhaps it’s fitting that Altoona’s T.J. Brandt is headed to the United States Military Academy West Point next fall to continue his wrestling, academic and life’s work.
Fitting because Brandt has rolled through the District 6 Class AAA Tournament like a tank rolling through the streets of a city that the Army has overtaken in war.
His opponents have stood slightly more of a chance against him than anything in front of that tank.
Brandt is a three-time District 6 champion, and in those three tournaments, he’s 8-0 with six pins, one technical fall and a major decision. Nobody has gone the distance with him since his first appearance in the finals – a 12-3 major decision over Bald Eagle Area’s returning district runner-up Justin Giedroc – at 103 pounds.
That seems like a long time ago when he was a smallish 103-pounder. He’s also won at 112 and 126, and he enters the postseason as a senior at 138.
Another title this weekend at the Altoona Fieldhouse and Brandt will be the first Altoona wrestler to win four district golds. Only 18 District 6 wrestlers have won four titles (seven in Class AAA, nine in Class AA and two all-class), and he’d be the first in Class AAA to do so since Central Mountain’s Dylan Alton in 2010.
“It’s a pretty large accomplishment in my opinion,” Altoona coach Joel Gilbert said. “There’s only 18 ever in District 6, so that kind of puts him up there with some of the best that there ever was in the sport. Historically speaking, when it comes to the district level, he’s been as good as anybody.”
You get the feeling that talking about winning a fourth title before he’s done it isn’t something that comes easily for Brandt.
Asked if he realizes there’s never been a four-time Altoona district champ, Brandt said, “I realize that, but I’ve got to stay focused on winning districts. I don’t know if it will [hit me], or when it will, but I’m sure it will mean something to me, definitely.”
If his wrestling against districts opponents this year is any indiction, that fourth title will be his easily. Brandt, wrestling between 138 and 152 to get the best competition, is 6-0 with six pins against district opponents.
The formula for his domination has been a relentless style, a vast wrestling knowledge built from many years of offseason wrestling throughout the state and nation and, for the last two years, a great workout partner in D.J. Hollingshead.
“I think it comes down to confidence,” Gilbert said. “He has confidence in what he wants to do out there to his opponents. I think he’s really aggressive when he wrestles in the district tournament. I think he puts people on their heels. They don’t want to wrestle him, and he takes it to them and can score a lot of points.”
While many wrestlers would feel the pressure of winning a fourth title in any postseason tournament difficult, Brandt’s laid-back demeanor seems to keep him at an even keel.
“There’s always pressure, but you’ve just got to keep a clear mind and go at it,” he said. “I have a relaxed style of wrestling, and I think it helps me a lot because I don’t get all hyped up for matches. I just warm up, relax for a few minutes and go out and wrestle.”
Brandt’s view of why he’s been so dominating at districts: “Just staying at it, never giving up and never losing your dreams,” he said.
He said one of his dreams was “crushed,” last week when the IOC dropped wrestling from the 2020 Olympics. Brandt’s reaction was much like the reaction by Penn State coach Cael Sanderson and Iowa coach Tom Brands, who are giants in the sport. His even keel turned to anger when the word came down about 2020, which would be about the time he would give the Olympics a shot.
“I was furious,” he said. “I’m pretty sure there are 40 countries that have medaled in the last 50 years, and that’s more than in any other [Olympic] sport, so they have to bring it back. It’s stupid if they don’t. There’s a lot I have to do to get to that point [of competing for an Olympic berth]. Cael Sanderson talks about even improving himself. I have to improve a lot to be at that level.”
Brandt, who with a career record of 117-18 just recently broke former teammate K.J. Walters’ school win mark of 116, has a 23-3 record. The losses all came by three points or less, including a 6-4 overtime loss to Franklin Regional’s Josh Maruca, and all had the same theme.
“We came out fast, scored on all of the opponents early and we didn’t finish the match,” Gilbert said. “The guys came back on us and beat us. The theme is we’ve got to have a better diet and be in better shape and then I think things will go the other way for us.”
“All of those kids are very good kids,” Brandt said, “and I’ve just got to keep at it. I let up at the end, and I just got beat. With every match you lose, there’s more you learn. I’d rather go out there and lose a match or two every season rather than go undefeated until the postseason because you learn what you’re doing wrong and what you can fix for the postseason.”
Brandt is very fortunate to even be wrestling this season. Last April, he was a passenger in a vehicle that slid off of a wet road and crashed into a tree. He was in the hospital for three days with a concussion and internal bleeding.
“I did rehabilitation for my concussion, and it took like two months to recover,” he said. “It was terrible. I didn’t go to school for the first week or two [afterward]. For wrestling, I kept pushing for my physical therapy to clear me, and I did everything to get cleared. I was extremely worried because that was the postseason for freestyle and Greco-Roman.”
Typical highly-skilled athlete. Worried about the next big event. Brandt did get cleared before the national tournament in Fargo, N.D., and he finished fifth in Greco.
Brandt missed the season-opening Mountaineer Tournament at Philipsburg-Osceola because he was visiting West Point. Not long after that, he picked the Academy.
“I’ve always wanted to be in the Army,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to wrestle in college at Division I. It’s what I wanted to do ever since I was 10 years old. I’m looking forward to it more than anything. It’s what I’d love to do. I’m just very excited.
“I had aspirations of doing well in the sport of wrestling, but I never thought I would be doing as well as I am right now. I had hopes and dreams, but hard work and dedication kept me at it.”
Brandt won his first Northwest Regional Tournament title last season to qualify for the PIAA Championships for the third time. He hasn’t placed in Hershey yet, going a combined 2-6, but he narrowly missed making the medal round two years ago when he lost in overtime in the consolations.
Last year in the consy bout that would have moved him into the medal round, he was beating Canon McMillan’s Colt Shorts, 2-0, in the second when Shorts reversed him to his back for five points and eventually won, 7-3.
“There are no easy opponents at that level,” Gilbert said. “You have to be ready to go down there, and you have to be focused. If you’re doing those things, you’re not going to win at that level. He’s been so close to placing. He’s just right there on the edge. Hopefully, this year he can take it to the next level.”
“I’m focusing in on districts right now,” Brandt said. “I’ve got to get that fourth district title and go from there. I’ve got to wrestle well out of every position and represent myself well.”