Altoona’s ­Brandt goes 4-for-4 at districts

Altoona 138-pound senior T.J. Brandt has been breaking school records all season, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his success had led to more recognition.

Brandt has been named the Mirror’s Wrestler of the Year, and he’s only the third Mountain Lion to earn the award and first since Jason Kutz was honored with the award following the 1990-91 season. Doug Rosenberry was also named the Wrestler of the Year for the 1986-87 season.

“It means a lot,” Brandt said at a photo shoot for the Mirror all-stars. “With all of these years that I’ve put in and all the hard work and dedication, an award puts it all together.”

“T.J. has put a lot of time into the sport of wrestling and has earned the Mirror Wrestler of the Year award,” Altoona coach Joel Gilbert said. “He has excelled not only in the folkstyle season, but in the freestyle and Greco-Roman season by being a two-time All-American.”

Since finishing sixth at the PIAA Class AAA Championships – his first medal in four appearances – Brandt has gained about seven pounds, which is far less than some of those at the photo shoot, and stepped off the mat for awhile.

“I relaxed for the first few days, and now I’m kind of getting eager again to wrestle,” he said. “Even taking a few days off makes you better. I enjoy my free time, but I do a lot of wrestling.”

Soon, Brandt will start to hit the road for freestyle and Greco-Roman tournaments, and he’s thinking of wrestling in the FILA national tournament, where if he wins a title he qualifies for the world team.

“I’m a better Greco wrestler than I am a freestyle and folkstyle wrestler,” he said, “but I think I can do it if I wrestle smart.”

Brandt accomplished his goal of finally placing in Hershey, but a 5-0 loss to Central Dauphin’s eventual two-time runner-up Tyson Dippery and a 3-2 loss to Council Rock North’s John Dutrow in the consy semifinals didn’t sit well with him.

When he lost to Franklin Regional’s Josh Maruca, 12-7, in the fifth-place finals, Brandt charged off the mat quickly, jaw set, his eyes looking for the wrestlers’ entrance/exit to the Giant Center.

“After I won in the quarters, I was real excited,” he said. “Let me say, there’s four nationally-ranked kids in that bracket, and I wrestled three of them. I was in every single match. They were very winnable. If a few calls would have gone my way, I would have won, but things happen.”

Brandt, the school record holder for career wins with 125, remembers after that bout a visit from some young fans that made him feel better.

“I was walking around after my fifth- and sixth-place match, and little kids from Altoona came up and gave me high-fives even though I lost,” Brandt said. “I guess they were there supporting me and looking up to me.”

Brandt, who was 31-6 this season, will be forever remembered as Altoona’s first four-time District 6 champion and the school’s first back-to-back champion since Kutz in 1991 and 1992. He steamrolled through the districts with nine career pins, a technical fall and a major decision.

“It would have been a lot better if I had been a two-time [state] place finisher,” he said. “Districts isn’t as prestigious as states.”

After his summer wrestling is done, Brandt will turn his attention to the United States Military Academy West Point, where he’ll continue his wrestling career. He’ll go to the Academy’s prep school the first year, and he’ll be able to wrestle in open tournaments in essentially a redshirt season.

That’s when it will hit him that he won’t be back in Altoona looking forward to competing for another medal at states.

“It’s a weird feeling,” he said, “because every year, I’m like ‘Ah, I’ve got next year. I’ll win another district title, hopefully, next year.’ I won them and there’s nothing else to look forward to next year but college wrestling.”

“In the future, I expect T.J. to excel academically and athletically at West Point,” Gilbert said. “He still has a lot of untapped potential, and with the regiment and workout partners at the Academy, his wrestling skills will only improve. I believe he will be a Division I college All-American.”

It will probably be weird inside the Altoona wrestling room as the Lions move on without Brandt.

“He was a big part of it,” Altoona senior 160-pounder Markief Knode said. “He’s a team captain, wrestled almost everybody in the room and his winning helped others want to win. I wrestled him almost every day in practice, and he’s tough. Sometimes, I could get in on shots, but I could barely finish them. He knows a lot more than I do. He’s very experienced, and sometimes I just don’t know what he’s doing.”