Last May, Kyle Epperly suffered a serious ankle injury.
It was critical enough to keep him off the wrestling mat for five months.
Normally, for a high school wrestler entering his junior season, this would be a disaster. But for Epperly, it was exactly what he needed.
During his first two years at Jackson Memorial High School, Epperly wrestled and worked out five times a week, all year. He admitted that he was getting a little tired of the sport.
But in his five months away, Epperly got to just hang out with friends and be a high school kid. He didn’t have to grind like a dedicated athlete. The experience made him appreciate wrestling again.
It also led to his best season yet. This winter, as a junior at Jackson Memorial High School, Epperly is 29-0.
On Jan. 26 at Red Bank Regional High School, he won the Shore Conference Tournament in the 195-pound weight class, beating Middletown High School North’s Jacob Anderson in the championship.
Epperly recovered from his injury, but he didn’t lose the mental clarity that he gained from the experience. The junior is just going out there and having fun.
“When I first got injured. I was like, ‘Wow, I won’t be able to train and get better.’ I was freaking out,” Epperly said. “But then time went by, I didn’t think about wrestling too much and once I got back, it was fun. I wasn’t dreading practice like I used to. I was excited.”
Epperly was able to lift a little when he was out, which helped him add the muscle he lacked as a sophomore and freshman. The 195-pounder weighed 160 when he arrived at Jackson Memorial. He has gained almost 40 pounds of muscle in two plus years.
“He was long and skinny when he got here. He looked like a great dane puppy,” said Jackson Memorial coach Doug Withstandley. “It took until this year for him to grow into his body and really get strong.”
After years of practice, Epperly had a developed repertoire of offensive moves. But his newfound clarity and strength helped him overcome his only weakness: playing defense.
Before, when opponents would wrestle him to the mat, Epperly had trouble breaking out of the pins. Now, he does it all the time. He no longer fears the situation.
“He has always been able to score but he would also get scored on,” Withstandley said. “This year, when people try to score on him, he scores on them. He turns it around.”
Epperly, though, is still not satisfied with his performance in that area.
“I wasn’t getting out at all before. But I still have to improve on the bottom. And once I do, I’ll be solid,” he said. “I have to stay humble. I can’t let myself think I’m too good.”
The junior has already accomplished a lot this year, but he is far from done. Epperly wants to earn the trifecta: the District 27, the Region 7 and the state tournament championships.
Last winter, in the 170-pound division, Epperly won the District 25 title but fell short of making the state tournament in Atlantic City.
“His original goal was to make states. But as he’s been beating good opponents, I told him his goal should be to win the region and place high on the podium in AC,” Withstandley said. “Top four in the state. He’s capable of that.”
“I’m trying to take the state,” Epperly said. “I just have to take it one match at a time and not think ahead. If I think ahead, I won’t get there.”