Profile: Wrestler John Erneste balances master’s degree program and All-American goal

Head coach Brian Smith: “He’s one of those kids that comes in consistent all the time.”
John Erneste after a match victory earlier this season. Courtesy of Mizzou Athletics

John Erneste, Missouri wrestling’s reliable 133-pound starter, did not wrestle at the Reno Tournament of Champions on Dec. 17.

It wasn’t because he was struggling on the mat. At the time, Erneste had a 7-1 record with three falls in eight duals.

It was because he had to graduate.

“I didn’t take him to the Reno tournament because it was the week after the exams, so I know what exam time was going to be for John: really tough,” head coach Brian Smith said. “He was good about it. He understood it.”

Erneste remembered being on an exercise bike when Smith broke the news to him.

“[Coach Smith] cares about more than just the wrestling aspect of being a student-athlete,” Erneste said.

A redshirt junior with Missouri wrestling, Erneste graduated a semester early in December with a Bachelor of Science in mathematics with an emphasis in actuarial science and mathematical finance. He started his first semester in the Crosby MBA program through the Trulaske College of Business this past January.

“The master’s [degree] is really to kind of find what my life is after wrestling,” Erneste said. “So, finding where I can apply the things I’ve learned in wrestling — the competitive edge, that kind of thing — to something in the real world. I mean, wrestling is real, but there’s always something after it.”

Family tradition

Math and wrestling are not new concepts to Erneste and his family. His mom, Patti, teaches math, and his sister, Sam, wrestled for a freestyle club and then for the high school team for two years.

His dad, Bill, was a college wrestler at Central Missouri State (now University of Central Missouri). A former high school wrestling coach and math teacher at Park Hill High School in Kansas City, he is now the school’s athletic director and an assistant principal. He coached John for three years in high school but did not take a formal coaching role with John otherwise.

“I feel whenever I look in the mirror, that I’m a good coach for other people’s kids,” Bill said in a phone interview. “I was one of those people that also knew that when you have this word called ‘love,’ that you love your own child, you better hire someone to coach your own kid because you’re too much involved.”

Smith said that he has conversations with Erneste that he wouldn’t have with other wrestlers because Erneste understands both the coach’s and athlete’s perspectives.

“The other thing that’s special about John that I see is that he’s a coach’s son, which I was,” Smith said. “And I always think coaches’ sons are — they’re just special because they see both sides of it.”

In high school, John came just short of winning a state championship, placing second and third two times each.

“There’s a lot of people that’ll drop off going into college, knowing that they’d accomplished their goals,” Erneste said. “But I think not having accomplished my goal kind of made me even more determined to figure it out in the next five years.”

After John placed second at state his senior year, Bill Erneste said that he told his son that he was destined for something greater.

“I told John, I said, ‘Just appreciate the journey. And you can make this happen,’” Bill said.

That “something greater” that Bill Erneste mentioned? John Erneste took it to heart.

The goal now? Become an All-American.

A day in the life

Erneste spends almost four hours training and about an hour watching film or reading articles every day.

“You know, he’s one of those kids that comes in consistent all the time,” Smith said. “When you talk about favorite kids to coach, he’s up there as one of ’em.”

On Tuesdays and Thursdays since he’s started his master’s program, Erneste gets to the Hearnes Center at 6:30 a.m. to get a lift or drill in before class. His classes go from 8 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. He works out again at 2 p.m. at the Hearnes Center — or later if there’s a team practice. After practice, he takes an ice bath or does whatever is necessary to recover.

“I really have to consciously rest,” Erneste said, noting that relaxation often means hanging out at his apartment with his roommates. “I get antsy a lot, so a lot of times I want to get up and move, but I need to realize that I can’t move today because tomorrow’s going to be a lot more grueling. … It’s not really that grueling except for those Tuesday/Thursdays.”

Smith contradicted Erneste’s nonchalance and said that the redshirt junior probably trains more than anybody in the room.

Upon hearing that, Erneste paused and thought before he said, “I’m humbled.” After another pause, he said, “I don’t train to, you know, show that I’m training. I come in because I need to get work done.”

His hard work is all done with the All-American goal in mind, which is awarded to the top eight wrestlers from each weight class at the NCAA Championships. It is an honor held by only 42 Mizzou wrestlers who have won a total of 69 titles in program history.

“When you’re driven to accomplish something … you don’t feel like it’s work; you don’t feel like it’s something you have to do,” Erneste said. “You go in and you want to do these things because you know it’s going to get you where you want to be.”

Canten Marriott, his teammate and roommate, said that he looks to Erneste for confirmation on whether he’s doing the right thing. Marriott is a redshirt freshman in the 184-pound weight class.

“Even if we don’t have a morning practice, he’ll come in and run — mainly for his weight, but also just to better himself,” Marriott said.

Marriott and Erneste were on the same youth wrestling team and have been friends since before the two were teenagers. Marriott recalled swimming at the Ernestes’ pool and playing basketball and soccer for fun together.

Once this season, the team was called in for a morning drill instead of a lift; Marriott said that he was complaining about hitting the mats that early, which Erneste countered by saying that he loved it.

“That kind of mindset or perspective on things is enjoyable to hear, and it’s encouraging,” Marriott said.

The embodiment of Tiger Style

Compartmentalizing is something that Erneste has learned as a student-athlete, especially as one with a high level of commitment to both aspects.

“Every time you go into something, you do it the best you can, but you just have to make sure you’re focusing on one thing at a time,” he said.

As a coach, Smith is aware of Erneste’s expectations for himself.

“Everybody has goals, but he has excellence where he wants a 4.0 and he wants to be an All-American national champion,” Smith said. “He’s looking through the clouds, way above it.”

That mindset of excellence affects both school and wrestling. Bill recalled his son’s first semester of college, when he was disappointed to learn that an A-minus was not a 4.0 grade point average. John Erneste called that realization “a little alarming” and added that his first B was not until college.

On the mat, Smith said Erneste will train more in the days after a match to correct his mistakes.

“He just wants to be excellent in everything, so it makes it easy to coach,” Smith said.

Erneste wrestled only in tournaments his freshman year, his redshirt season. In his first year counting toward official stats, he again wrestled only in tournaments. Last season he became the starter at 133 pounds halfway through the season. After going 5-1 in MAC duals, he won the 133-pound MAC Championship, also qualifying for the 2017 NCAA Championships.

“He prepared himself for that in all the years he was here training,” Smith said. “So he knew when the time came that he had the opportunity to step up, he’d be prepared. And he was.”

Erneste finished the 2017-18 regular season with a 19-2 record and six falls, going 6-0 in MAC duals. He was consistently ranked in the top 10 throughout the season, including two weeks straight at the No. 3 spot by Trackwrestling.

Smith characterizes Erneste as an example of what Tiger Style, Missouri wrestling’s mantra, means.

“I’ve been fortunate to coach some elite kids, but John is a kid that, in his whole life, he’s that way,” Smith said. “He’s elite in everything.”

Edited by Joe Noser |

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