Altoona athletes doing D1

For T.J. Brandt, becoming a wrestler was a pretty easy choice, and he is pretty direct at telling the reason.

“Not being good at any other sport,” Brandt said with a chuckle. “Yeah, I was terrible at football, baseball. I was horrible.”

Luckily for Brandt, he turned out to be a natural on the mat and wound up one of the most successful wrestlers ever to come through Altoona Area High School. And AAHS has plenty of other talent to get the job done in the other sports, too.

That was evident Thursday afternoon. Brandt was one of three Altoona senior athletes to sign letters-of-intent with Division I colleges in the Kimmel Board Room – while he inked his with Army, Kolby Koeck made official his intention to pole vault at Villanova, and all-state girls basketball player Kayla Grimme followed up on the commitment she made about 10 days ago to attend Manhattan.

“It feels good that I’m finally here and to know this is what I’ve been working so hard toward for so many years,” Grimme said. “It all works out, and it’s really exciting to know that I’m moving on.”

Koeck and Brandt have been particularly close growing up, making the occasion all the more special.

“It’s kind of cool to see all of my friends go to DI schools,” Koeck said. “This means a lot. I’ve always been looking forward to this day ever since I started pole vaulting back in seventh grade. I always wanted to go to college for this and do it, because I love it. It’s a sport that’s so much fun to do.”

The latest in a proud line of Mountain Lion pole vaulters – Altoona had a string of 12 straight years with a boy medaling at states in the event – Koeck chose Villanova over Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bucknell and Lehigh.

“I like Villanova because they’re a great track program. They’re the winningest school at the Penn Relays,” Koeck said. “I just wanted a good, athletic DI college to go to.”

Koeck is seventh all-time at the school with a personal-best of 14 feet, 10 inches, and he held the class record when he was a freshman.

“We’re really proud of the tradition we have, and Kolby is no exception to that tradition. He’s working hard since he was a seventh grader,” Altoona boys track and field coach Mike Adams said. “It’s amazing, because he’s a very intelligent person. But then he goes upside-down 15 feet in the air with the possibility of landing on his head.”

Koeck said he didn’t necessarily get into pole vaulting to follow in the footsteps of a number of other Lion stars but just for the thrill of the event.

“Once you hit your jump and you’re up in the air, it’s a weightless feeling. Then you keep on going, and you don’t know where the bar is until you’re right over it,” Koeck said. “Then you fall the rest of the way. When you see the bar still up there, it’s the best feeling in the world.”

Signing his paper on Thursday was another feeling entirely.

“I’m more nervous doing this that pole vault,” Koeck said with a smile. “I can go 15 feet in the air and that’s perfectly fine. This, I get worried about.”

Grimme might have felt a little relief as she signed for her scholarship, too. An all-state selection and Mirror first-team all-star as a junior, she appeared to be close to picking a college during the early signing period but didn’t. Then, her senior season got off to a slow start, particularly on the offensive end, as she tried to play through the severe ankle sprain she sustained in a tournament a year ago – she even collapsed before the Lady Lions’ District 6 Class AAAA semifinal game with State College but gutted it out as Altoona advanced.

Manhattan recruited her then backed off, but the Jaspers returned to the picture when they saw her perform at a tournament a few weeks ago. She picked Manhattan over Mount St. Mary’s, Sacred Heart and Loyola, Md., to which she cancelled a visit after she saw the New York campus. Dartmouth also was involved early on.

“It’s all happening all at once,” said Grimme, who seemed almost overwhelmed when she entered the room surrounded by coaches, family, friends and media. “For years, I’ve been saying I want to go into a bigger city. Then, when I got [to Manhattan], I liked the feel of it, the people there. It just seemed like a good fit for me.”

Grimme wants to major in communications and eventually enter the fashion industry. The 6-foot-1 senior was capable of putting on a show around the basket, where it wasn’t uncommon for her to block close to 10 shots and dominate the glass in important games – she averaged around 10 rebounds and 4 blocks per game to go along with 8.5 points.

“This is a huge day for Kayla and her mom and her family. This is such a great accomplishment. She has worked hard not just for this season but two previous seasons, and I think this shows what hard work and determination [can achieve],” Lady Lion coach Jill Helsel said. “She has a unique talent for blocking shots that made opponents fear her. Manhattan is very lucky to be getting such a talented player and great individual.”

The scholarship was the culmination of a life of work. Grimme began playing in co-ed leagues when she was in first grade.

“My mom had three brothers and sisters. They all played basketball. So my mom introduced me to it,” Grimme said. “I love the game, too.”

About 6 inches shorter than Grimme, Brandt has know for a while where he wanted to go. Colleges like Virginia, Bucknell , Lehigh and Pitt tried to get him to consider them to no avail, as he committed to Army during the season.

“I’ve always wanted to be the Army since I was little. Being a student-athlete, it was the best option for me. I really didn’t talk to any other schools. It was all West Point,” Brandt said.

The Mirror’s wrestler of the year, Brandt has put together an impressive resume. He’s the Mountain Lions’ first four-time District 6 champion and set the school record in wins with 125. He was named the outstanding wrestler at the District 6 Class AAA tournament, finished sixth at the state meet this year – one of only 17 Altoona wrestlers to place at states – and was a two-time Greco-Roman All-American.

“T.J. had committed his life to wrestling, and it has paid off for him,” Lion coach Joel Gilbert said. “He is one of the best Altoona has ever had.”

One achievement, though, stood out above all others.

“Definitely the four district titles. I’ll always remember it,” Brandt said.

Getting to celebrate his signing with his classmates Koeck and Grimme was the icing on the cake for Brandt.

“We had a very talented class of 2013,” Brandt said.