'He's picking up the torch': Meet Parker Keckeisen, Northern Iowa’s latest star wrestler
Doug Schwab has worked tirelessly during his 11-year tenure as Northern Iowa’s head wrestling coach to rewire his athletes’ minds. He wants them to think bigger, to perform bigger, to win bigger.
The result looks like redshirt freshman Parker Keckeisen sitting on a zoom call and putting those thoughts on record.
“I want to win five NCAA titles,” Keckeisen said last week. “Go big or go home.”
Hard to think bigger than that, honestly — which is why Schwab tends to smile when asked about Keckeisen.
“He wants to be great,” Schwab says. “This is what he’s planned to do, and what he’s talked about doing.”
The rest of the country — or, at least, those who may not regularly follow the Northern Iowa wrestling program — will get to know Keckeisen this week.
Keckeisen, Northern Iowa’s starting 184-pounder, is the 4-seed at this week’s NCAA Championships, set for March 18-20 at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis. He is 13-0 this season, and 31-1 overall in his still-budding college career.
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Earlier this month, Keckeisen won a Big 12 wrestling title, setting him up for a podium run this week. He is the fourth-straight Panther wrestler to win the Big 12 at 184. Drew Foster won it in both 2018 and 2019, and Taylor Lujan won it last year.
Pretty elite company. Foster, of course, was a two-time All-American and won a national title in 2019. Lujan won two Big 12 titles and was the 1-seed at last season’s NCAA Championships before the COVID-19 pandemic forced its cancellation.
“Tradition matters,” Schwab says. “It’s not like it’s handed to you, but when you see someone in front of you do it, it becomes more believable. You start thinking, I can do this, too. It’s not a matter of if I’m going to win a national title, but how many?
“Foster won in front of him. Lujan won in front of him. Now he’s picking up the torch.”
But Keckeisen’s stellar season did not start that way.
Keegan Moore began the year as Northern Iowa’s starter at 184 pounds. He started 2-1 through the Panthers’ first three duals, against South Dakota State, North Dakota State and Missouri. Keckeisen got the nod on Jan. 24, against Oklahoma. He, unofficially, took 12 shots and, officially, put up 21 points in a major decision win.
He hasn’t been removed from the lineup since.
Over the last 50 days, Keckeisen has rolled, defeating five NCAA qualifiers. He’s outscored his opponents 116-43 this season. He’s scored 44 takedowns and has allowed just four entering this week’s national tournament.
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Schwab described Keckeisen’s wrestling style as “all gas.” He trains that way, too.
“He’s very high-energy, just with his personality, and I think his wrestling reflects that,” Foster says. “I don’t think you’ll ever catch that dude on a bad day. He just has that attitude toward things, and he brings that to the room every day.
“I told him (recently), ‘Dude, if you wrestled a younger version of me, you’d dog me so bad.’”
Foster’s story has been well-told by now. Never won a state title at Mediapolis high school. Went 15-18 record during his redshirt freshman season with the Panthers. Even during his run to an NCAA title in 2019, television broadcasters called him Doug, and said he was from Burlington, Illinois (he was actually from the Iowa version of Burlington, not the village in northern Illinois). Expectations weren’t high until he reached them.
Keckeisen joined the Northern Iowa program with far higher expectations.
He was a two-time Wisconsin state champ, a Junior freestyle All-American, and a finalist at the Junior men’s freestyle world team trials. He was considered the No. 14 overall recruit nationally in the 2019 recruiting class, according to Flowrestling.
He is a product of the Askren Wrestling Academy, run by Ben and Max Askren, both national champs for Missouri. Keckeisen, specifically, credits Max Askren for helping him foster not only a passion for the sport, but for helping him develop his own unique wrestling style.
“They’re definitely innovators of the sport,” Keckeisen said of the Askren brothers. “I think you can break down every match into smaller chunks. I try to break it down to positions. I want to take each position and create scoring opportunities.
“Max definitely instilled that in me first, and Doug has helped me emphasize it. I just want to try and win each position. Positions, positions, positions.”
It helps that both Foster and Lujan are still in the room pushing Keckeisen in those many wrestling positions. Foster is more the technician, Keckeisen says, and will thump him if he isn’t ready. Lujan and his funky hips means those two get into plenty of fun scrambles, which Keckeisen loves because, well, he was coached by the Askrens.
But those experiences have only helped Keckeisen in preparation for this week.
“He’s got what it takes,” Foster says. “He’s a goer. He wants to go out there and score points. He’s going to give himself opportunities. I know he can take everybody down, and if he can take everybody down, that means he can win every match.
“Don’t be surprised to see this guy on Saturday night.”
Big words, but Foster is a guy who’s been there and done that. He knows what it takes. Keckeisen is on that same path. He’s thinking bigger, and this week is the next opportunity to perform bigger and, ultimately, win bigger.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.