By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Standing 6-foot-4, University of Nebraska at Kearney senior Brayden Sorensen has the right height and build to succeed as a high jumper.
However, that’s not what sets him apart.
There are a lot of people who can jump really high, but only the best come through when it really counts.
“That’s probably the thing he has excelled at the most from the time he got to UNK until now,” assistant track and field coach Lonny Polacek said. “You have to have that confidence and the ability to look somebody in the eye and know you can beat them.”
In his 12th year at UNK, Polacek has seen a lot of great high jumpers at the Division I and II levels, and Sorensen ranks right up there.
“He’s a five-time national qualifier and he’s competed at the USA Championships,” Polacek said.
And, the longtime coach noted, he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet.
Sorensen didn’t participate in organized sports growing up, but he decided to join the track and field team as an eighth grader, the result of his father’s success and his own competitiveness.
“I wanted to high jump because I saw all of my dad’s medals and all the stuff he did,” Sorensen explained.
“My whole goal was to beat him,” he added with a smile.
That would take a few years.
His father Boyd was a standout athlete at Shelton High School who won the Nebraska all-class gold in 1979, clearing 6 feet, 7 inches in the high jump, and qualified for a national meet. Boyd went on to compete at Kearney State College.
At Kearney High, Sorensen placed sixth in Class A as a junior, leaping a career-best 6-4 at the state meet. A foot injury caused problems throughout his senior season, forcing him to exit the state event in a tie for 11th place.
“All I wanted to do was break the school record at Kearney High, and I never got to that,” he said.
History wouldn’t elude him much longer.
GROWING BY LEAPS AND BOUNDS
After arriving at UNK, Sorensen made a significant change by switching his approach from the right side to the left, allowing him to jump off his right foot.
“I developed a lot during my freshman year,” he said. “When I was in high school, I thought I knew a lot about high jump, but I didn’t. Then I got here and I was like, ‘Wow. I can really get a lot better.’”
Sorensen bought into Polacek’s process, which contributed to his winning mentality.
“If I’m being honest, this event is like 90% mental,” he said. “If you mess up one thing in your approach, you’re done. You have to be confident through the whole process – the coaching process, the training process, everything. If you have any doubt in your head whatsoever, you’re not winning. You have to be completely committed and fully confident in yourself.”
Following a COVID-shortened freshman year, Sorensen was ready to put that confidence on display. He reached at least 6-11 in three indoor meets as a sophomore, setting a new school record of 7 1/2 to win the MIAA indoor title in February 2021. The following month, Sorensen cleared 6-11 1/2 to finish as the national runner-up at the NCAA Division II Indoor Championships in Birmingham, Alabama.
He carried that momentum into the outdoor season, topping 7 feet in three meets and winning another conference championship. Sorensen took third at the NCAA Division II Outdoor Championships in Allendale, Michigan, and claimed the other school record with a jump of 7-1 1/2.
Now, he has his sights set on the all-time record for UNK’s Cushing Coliseum – 7-2 – a mark set by Division I national champion, U.S. champion and former Olympian Nathan Leeper when he was competing for Dodge City Community College.
“I’d definitely like to beat his record,” Sorensen said.
The three-time All-American repeated as the MIAA indoor champ in 2022 and finished seventh at nationals before another injury derailed his outdoor season. Sorensen hurt his knee ahead of the conference meet that spring, leading to a sixth-place finish at that event and a disappointing 17th-place performance at nationals.
“That was tough,” Sorensen said. “I could jump off that leg pretty well, but I was so scared that I was going to permanently hurt it. The hardest thing about it is it destroyed my confidence.”
Despite the injury, Sorensen was able to compete in the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships, hosted last June at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. He called that experience “the craziest thing I’ve ever done.”
“I literally warmed up with a world record-holder on my right and an American record-holder on my left. And I’m just standing there like, ‘Wow. This is really happening. I am here competing with these people.’ It was unreal the whole time I was there.”
Sorensen hopes to get back to the U.S. Championships, but he has other goals to accomplish first.
With four individual titles and two runner-up finishes this season, Sorensen is one of seven Lopers who qualified for the 2023 NCAA Division II Indoor Championships, scheduled for Friday and Saturday in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
He’s joined by defending national champion and three-time All-American Wes Ferguson (800), two-time All-American Luke Stuckey (mile), Alex Goracke (weight throw), Alex Homan (pole vault) and the distance medley relay team of Ferguson, Stuckey, Micah Swedberg and Payton Davis.
The UNK men’s track and field team is currently ranked No. 24 in Division II, with the high jump squad ranked even higher at No. 5.
Sorensen, who sits at eighth nationally with a season-best jump of 7 1/4, has become a leader for that unit.
“Great athletes aren’t always the best teammates, but that’s not the case with Brayden,” Polacek said. “He wants others to be successful. Sometimes in practice I feel like he spends as much time trying to coach others as he does trying to improve himself. It’s kind of a neat thing to see a kid who becomes selfless and becomes more of a leader like that.”
A business administration major, Sorensen plans to utilize his fifth year of eligibility in 2023-24. After graduation, he wants to coach at the collegiate level.
“I want to try to get people to the same point I’m at,” Sorensen said.