In two days, Altoona junior T.J. Brandt will begin his quest to get on the medals stand at the PIAA Class AAA Championships. From personal experience, Brandt knows it won't be easy.
This is Brandt's third appearance at the Giant Center, and he hasn't medaled yet, but he came oh so close to reaching the medal round last year.
Brandt went 1-2 in last year's tournament, winning his first bout and then losing his next two to eventual medalists, Liberty's fourth-placer Anthony Cabrera, 9-1, in the quarterfinals and Governor Mifflin's sixth-placer Kenny Arentz, 7-5 in overtime, in the second round of consolations.
Brandt rallied in the Arentz bout, coming back from 4-1 down with a takedown and two back points at the edge of the mat to take a brief 5-4 lead. But, he was called for a full nelson while getting the back points, giving a point to Arentz and tying the bout. That stinging loss motivated Brandt in the offseason and beyond.
"Back then, it was extremely disappointing," Brandt said, "but now I use it as motivation to not come up short this year. I used it as a way to look forward to next year and get out there and medal."
"Nothing motivates you more than losing a match you think you could have won," Altoona coach Joel Gilbert said.
n A junior, he is a three-time District 6 Class AAA champion and three-time state qualifier.
n He's 29-3 with 17 pins and has career record of 93-13.
Brandt (29-3), who is coming off of his first Northwest Regional title, opens the tournament with Big Spring's Southcentral third-placer Dustin Rook (40-6), who is wrestling in the tournament for the first time. Should he win that, Brandt would likely get Blue Mountain's returning 119-pound state champion Corey Keener (43-1).
"It really doesn't matter who I wrestle," Brandt said. "I have to wrestle my match and attack from all positions. It wouldn't matter if I had to wrestle Cael Sanderson or somebody who hasn't wrestled before. I have to prepare the same way."
That's a mature attitude for a junior in high school. Brandt's maturity has been an evolving process as he has gotten older, his coach says.
"He had to do some maturing," Gilbert said. "He doesn't lose his cool as much in tight matches as he did when he was a freshman. I think he did it on his own. When you're 14 or 15 with a lot of people watching you, that can be overwhelming."
"I did a lot of soul searching, and I saw what really mattered," Brandt said. "I love to compete and train to compete to wrestle in those tough matches like in the regional finals. I looked and saw what I wanted for myself and what I wanted for my future. Practicing hard definitely sparked my interest."
Brandt started wrestling in the first grade, but he says he didn't become a success until he was 9 or 10, and he credits Young Guns' Jody Strittmatter for that. Brandt captured a Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling state title at 82 pounds when he was in eighth grade, and he moved up to the high school level as a small 103-pounder the next year.
As a freshman, he went 32-4 with 21 pins, breezed to the first of his three District 6 titles and finished second at the regional tournament, losing to Clearfield's Christian Stone in the finals. Undersized at the state tournament, he went 0-2.
"I wrestled well," Brandt said, "but there's always room for improvement no matter what. I've shown improvement since then."
As a sophomore, he went 32-6 with 16 pins wrestling between 112 and 125, and two of his three regular-season losses came to 2011 state champion Jordan Conaway of New Oxford and 2010 state champ Zain Retherford of Line Mountain.
He had to cut weight for the first time in his high school career, and it started to give him problems late in the season. He missed four of the last six dual meets. Part of the reason was weight issues, and he also admitted to being a little burned out from cutting weight.
"It was just more of a discipline thing," he said. "When I figured out how to control my weight, it became a lot easier. Now I'm not letting my weight control my wrestling."
While he didn't place at Hershey following his to Brashear's Godwin Nyama in the regional finals, he shined in the offseason, winning a Greco-Roman state title at 119 before placing fourth at the ASICS/Vaughan National Championships in Fargo, N.D.
He saw some of the best wrestlers in the nation there, and he's been seeing some of the best in the state as Gilbert has been moving Brandt, who has gotten bigger and stronger this season, around in the lineup from 126 to 138. Two of his losses came at 132 at the Jersey Shore Duals.
"I feel like that was in my best interest," Brandt said. "I got some tough competition, and it taught me how to battle."
Saturday, he battled and captured his first regional title by beating McDowell's previously once-beaten Nick Gibson, 5-4. It was a good kickstart for what he has to face in Hershey.
"I knew no matter who I wrestled, it was going to be a tough match," Brandt said. "I had to wrestle tough, and I had to wrestle my match. My goal [at states] is to represent myself well and attack from all positions. If those two things happen, I know I will have wrestled my best."