Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

No. 3 Large School: Edwardsville Paves Path to Success with the 'Tiger Way'

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

No. 3 Large School: Edwardsville Paves Path to Success with the 'Tiger Way'

Article excerpt

EDWARDSVILLE * It's ingrained in AJ Epenesa. He doesn't think about it. Neither do his teammates.

When you pull on your Edwardsville jersey, buckle your helmet and take the football field, there is one way to go about your business.

The Tiger Way.

"I don't really know any different than the 'Tiger Way,' " Epenesa said. "That's how it's been preached since we started as 'Little Tigers.' No walking on the field, no doing this or that. You always hustle. I feel like that's been preached to us our entire lives. This is my ninth year playing football, so I've heard it for a long time. It's pretty normal now."

Normal at Edwardsville would be a dream come true for any number of programs. The reigning three-time Southwestern Conference champion, Edwardsville graduates excellent players every year and every year new players step into those roles and succeed. The Tigers have qualified for the playoffs five consecutive seasons. Last season they were 9-1, and that lone loss was a 20-17 heartbreaker when Waubonsie Valley scored on the last play in the first round of the Class 8A playoffs.

Edwardsville, the No. 3 large school in the preseason rankings, opens the season at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 26 at Quincy.

The Tigers have had their share of top-tier talent during their recent domination of the SWC, pound for pound the toughest in the area. But the success of the program is not built on those types of kids. It's the guys who pay their dues and work for their chance when it comes, even if it's just their senior season.

"If you survive our program, you're a five-star kid," Edwardsville coach Matt Martin said.

That is not to say the Tigers are without their share of coveted players. The 6-foot-5 and 270-pound Epenesa is rated as a five-star prospect. One of the most sought-after recruits in the nation, Epenesa pledged to Iowa in January after he received more than 25 offers that included Alabama, Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Oregon, Missouri, Mississippi and Illinois.

He finished his junior season with 34 tackles and three sacks while receiving significant attention from every offensive line he went against.

The biggest challenge for Epenesa, a four-year member of the varsity, is to talk more. Quiet by nature, Epenesa hasn't always been the most vocal leader in the locker room.

"He's taken more of a leadership role, verbally," Martin said. "He has a great opportunity, people will listen. What he says will carry weight, bottom line."

Senior cornerback and receiver Travis Anderson (5-10, 160) is a state champion hurdler and all-around phenomenal athlete.

His impact last season was somewhat limited as he caught one pass for 17 yards and was credited with six tackles. Anderson is talented enough to be a big-time piece of the puzzle.

"He's a great kid. He could be an absolute difference maker for us," Martin said. …

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