A.J. Epenesa was no stranger to track and field when he began his athletic career at Edwardsville High School two years ago.
A gifted three-sport athlete, Epenesa had run the hurdles and in relays and competed in the high jump in junior high.
But the discus? Never.
In fact, Epenesa had no plans to go out for the Tigers track team when he began his freshman year.
Never miss a local story.
But after making his mark as a starting defensive end in football and as a key reserve for the Tigers state-ranked basketball team as a freshman, Epenesa, with the urging of EHS football coach Matt Martin, decided to go out for the team.
Now, a little over a year after competing in the discus for the first time, Epenesa has broken the 51-year-old school record twice and has the best throw in the nation for a sophomore at 187-feet 2/ 1/2-inches. That throw, which came at the Alton Freshman/Sophomore Relays, is also the seventh-best throw in the nation by any high school athlete.
“In practice, I felt good and I was throwing it pretty good in warmups that day. But I had no idea I was going to throw it that far,” Epenesa said. “When I threw it, I was thinking it was 150-160 feet because that’s what I was throwing at the time and so when they called out the number, it was a complete surprise.
“But it felt good. It felt good coming out of my hand and it felt good to know that I had made that big of a jump to put up that big of a number.”
That throw, which came just days after his throw of 180-3 broke the mark of 178-10 set by Bob Hoskins in 1964, has earned the 16-year-old Epenesa the honor as the Belleville News-Democrat Athlete of the Week.
For the 6-foot-6 245-pound Epenesa, putting up big numbers is nothing new. A starter on the Tigers basketball team, he averaged 13.8 points per game and was one of the top players in the Southwestern Conference.
But football is both Epenesa’s passion and future.
Regarded as one of the top high school defensive ends in the nation for the class of 2017 by several national scouting services, Epenesa should be playing NCAA Division I major college football in three years.
Perennial powerhouses such as Florida State, Nebraska and Notre Dame, Missouri and Iowa already have made scholarship offers.
“Football is my No. 1 sport and what I want to do in college in a couple of years,” Epenesa said. “It really doesn’t matter how many scholarship offers you have. You just want to make the most of the opportunties and continue to do the best that you can.”
This spring, with the aid of Tigers track coach Chad Lakatos and Martin, Epenesa has made the most out of his opportunites in the discus.
Lakatos, who took an always strong Tigers program and built it into a state power, said athletes like A.J. Epenesa don’t come around often.
“There aren’t many three-sport athletes anymore and when you get them, you cherish them,” Lakatos said. “Great athletes make things look easy. He came into high school as a freshman last year and started on the varisty football team and so we knew he was going to be good.
“By the end of last year, he was throwing in the 140s to 150 and so we knew he had a lot of potential. The key was getting him a lot of reps because he hadn’t thrown the discus before and the form is just so high tech. Coach (Matt) Martin has done a great job with him.”
Martin’s first great job was to get Epensa to commit to track and field.
“I really wasn’t going to do it. I was going to play football and basketball and that was it,” Epenesa said. “Coach Martin came to me and told me he thought it would be a good idea if I did it. I went home and talked it over withy my mom and dad and then I think we called him one night and discussed it with him.
“I’m glad I did. Track annd field and more specifically throwing the discus is a good way to meet new people and make new friends. And then there is the competitive side of it. The discus is very competitive and I’m a very competitive person. My whole family is. Sports have always been a big part of our lives.”
His father, Epenesa Epenesa, was a defensive linemen at the University of Iowa in the late 1990s. His mom, Stephanie, played volleyball at Iowa Wesleyan University and his older sister, Sam, recently completed her junior season as a member of the Purdue University volleyball team.
Epenesa also has two younger brothers who are involved in numerous sports.
Epenesa is also happy to see that his hard work is starting to pay off in the discus.
“We’ve been lifting a lot and doing a lot of work in the ring. It’s good to know that the work we’re doing is paying off. I just need to keep doing that and hopefully keep improving every day,” Epenesa said. “Before the end of the year, I want to hit 190 and then 195. If 200 feet comes, that would be an added bonus
“My form is definitely not perfect or anywhere near. I’m trying to clean it up.”