Parker vying to leave own mark after becoming national title contender

Parker vying to leave own mark after becoming national title contender

CHAMPAIGN — Jim Heffernan made the 170-mile trip to Lake Forest and the Poeta Training Center about six years ago to watch then prospective recruit Eric Barone in a workout.

The Crystal Lake native would ultimately sign with Illinois wrestling, but that one particular trip ended up being a two-for-one recruiting stop for the Illini coach.

“I went up to watch Eric practice one time and started asking (now Illinois assistant Mike Poeta) questions about this other guy and it ended up being Emery,” Heffernan said.

As in now Illinois redshirt senior Emery Parker. The Warren Township grad, who earned All-American honors last season with a third-place finish at nationals, will finish his Illini career at the NCAA championships, which get underway today in Pittsburgh.

That Illinois career, though, basically started by chance.

“He really hadn’t done much up until his senior year in high school, but after I saw him, he stood out as somebody I thought was just starting to figure it out,” Heffernan said of Parker. “He stood out with his athleticism and speed and how hard he was working. Then I met him and talked to him. The type of kid he was, it was a pretty easy choice after that. I just saw a tremendous upside in him.”

Parker knew Heffernan would be at the workout that day. Poeta, who was a two-time Big Ten champion and three-time All-American at Illinois, told him. So what Parker did that day and how he performed wasn’t totally by chance.

“(Heffernan) saw a kid that was trying really hard to get recruited,” Parker said.

Parker remembers that day clearly. He was wrestling Libertyville’s Kayne MacCallum, who spent a graduate transfer season at Oklahoma this year after starting his career at Eastern Michigan. Parker said he usually went back and forth with MacCallum when they competed.

Not so much that day.

“I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to score a lot of points today,’” Parker said. “I really wanted to go to Illinois. I wasn’t really, I think, being considered at a lot of other places, so that was kind of a big opportunity for me. I know Mike had my back there and things like that. I know he was probably telling Heff about me. (Poeta) helped me tremendously to get where I am today.

“In my head I was thinking, ‘I need to put on a show today in order to get to the next level.’ It ended up working out pretty well.”

Parker still had an uphill climb once he got at Illinois. He redshirted during the 2014-15 season, spending most of his time in the Illinois wrestling room going up against guys like Jackson Morse (an All-American in 2015), Jeff Koepke and Zac Brunson (an All-American in 2017). A lot of time losing, to be more accurate.

“I got my butt whooped a good amount of times,” Parker said. “It’s kind of a rite of passage. I think if I didn’t take those beatings then I wouldn’t be where I am today. If I came in winning, I might have been a little more complacent.

“I hate losing. I think that’s one thing that has made me do well over the last five years is I hate losing so much. I’m going to do everything in my power to get better and to not lose.”

That competitive edge was on full display at last year’s NCAA championships. Parker lost his first match of the tournament before winning seven straight in wrestlebacks, capping it by taking down seventh-seeded Taylor Venz out of Nebraska to claim third place.

“I think he knew he kind of screwed up in the first round and didn’t wrestle to his ability,” Heffernan said. “He made up his mind he wasn’t going to lose. That’s hard to do, but I think more than anything, it shows you the power of the mind sometimes.

“He’s a competitive guy, and he’s got a different gear once he gets to the tournament. He hates to lose — just hates it. We’ll get his best. I know that. … He’s a competitive guy, and not going to do anything halfway — ever.”

Parker is 80-21 in his Illinois career heading into this week’s NCAA championships. The majority of those wins came the last three seasons, as he didn’t fully break into Illinois’ lineup until his redshirt sophomore season in 2016-17. What he’s done has more than exceeded what he thought he was capable of when he arrived at Illinois after a state runner-up finish in 2014, the best postseason showing of his high school career.

“I don’t know if I came in here with super great expectations from my background in high school and just as a young, maybe undeveloped, wrestler and some of the doubts that came along with that,” Parker said. “I think in my five years here I’ve just kind of kept my down and have been working hard.

Clearly, that’s paid off for me as an individual. I like kind of being the underdog, so I think I’m in a good position to finish out the season well.”

Parker prefers to have zero outside expectations. It partly alleviates any pressure he might feel and partly provides his drive and motivation. That’s not to say, however, that he hasn’t set the bar fairly high for himself this week in Pittsburgh. Illinois has had a wrestler in a national title match each of the last six seasons, with Isaiah Martinez winning the last title in 2016.

“Maybe starting at the four-seed this time is something that’s going to drive me to place above that,” Parker said. “I think a lot of people aren’t seeing me as being a contender, and I already see myself as under-seeded in terms of my expectations. Moving forward, I’m in a place where I can just wrestle.

“In my head, I’m expecting to do much better than that. I don’t think there’s any pressure on me right now compared to being the one seed or two seed. Those are the guys that have to worry about guys sneaking up behind them and maybe taking them out more than me. I’m going to be one of the guys sneaking up behind.”