By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Chuck Smith, who took over as head coach at Mainland Regional prior to this season, knew it might be a rough year for the Mustangs. He had a young roster and a lot of inexperience at key positions, both on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. He needed his senior class to step up and be leaders for a team in transition.
He couldn’t have asked for a better leader than lineman Matt Epstein.
The Mustangs went just 1-9 this season, winning their only game against rival Egg Harbor Township the night before Thanksgiving. A nine-game losing streak to start the season frayed the nerves of players, coaches and fans. It took a valiant effort by the seniors to keep this team together and begin to build a foundation for better days to come. It’s not easy for any coach to ask a senior to keep pushing and keep playing hard and staying positive knowing it’s going to be one of the toughest seasons in the history of a proud program.
But guys like Epstein, Jack and Teddy Bergman, Tahir Campbell, John McLaughlin, Josh Verret and Dalton Raring, among others, kept up a positive attitude even when the going was at its toughest.
“Having a new coach was different. Somebody had to have that first year with him, and I’m happy it was (this senior class). We got to know our coach and get the younger guys prepared for his style. The younger guys do need an example, and there was no one better to lead by example than our senior class. As coach said, we started out slowly, but it was about the last one for us. We wanted to end on a high note, which we did, and now they can go into the offseason building off that high note,” Epstein said. “It was really hard to hold the team together when we were losing, but we really came together, not only as teammates, but as friends. We kept working together and striving to be the best we could. I’m happy we did win that final game.”
“He’s a program guy, all around. Great character, great leader and a very good football player on both sides of the ball. He did everything we asked of him this year. On the offensive line he played center and tackle, depending on what was going on because we had so many injuries going on. He was our long snapper, a defensive end, a team captain, a scholar-athlete, the MVP of our football team this year. He’s one of those guys you appreciate having in your program and is irreplaceable when they leave,” Smith said. “We had a core group of seniors this year. Nobody wants to see their season go the way ours did this year, but I tip my hat to those guys. I said to them at our banquet that they are the ones who held everything together. They kept practices upbeat and fun and they always looked at the positive in everything, no matter how bad things may have gotten at times — whether it was the scores or the injuries — they kept everything positive. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know if we would have won on Thanksgiving. They were always looking for the good out of everything, and we were better for it. As we move forward with this program things will continue to go in a good direction because of the seniors we had this year.”
Epstein isn’t a guy who lives and breathes football. Sure, he loves the game, but throughout his high school career he was focused on his academics, knowing that would take him much further than his football talent. He started out as just another freshman, a kid who had some decent size but not a guy coaches heap praise onto. But through a lot of hard work he transformed his body, became much bigger and stronger, and showed the type of versatility that would ultimately make him the most valuable player on the team.
As a sophomore, he got some time when starting center Ty Coffey got hurt. He did so well that the following year former head coach Bob Coffey kept him on the offensive line. He also began to work in more as a defensive lineman as a junior, and by his senior year Epstein was one of the better two-way linemen in the new West Jersey Football League Independence Division. He recently was invited to the Brooks Irvine Memorial Football Club’s annual awards night, where he was honored as one of the WJFL’s scholar-athletes.
“As I’ve been saying to everyone, I never played football to be the best on the field, I played it to grow as a person. That’s what I always wanted to do while playing for Mainland. Mainland was the best place for me to play because that’s what (the coaches) did teach me. They taught me how to grow as a person, how to prepare, and how to deal with adverse situations. That’s why I love Mainland football,” said Epstein, who carries a 5.0 grade-point average, which means straight-As in high honors classes. “I started off as a freshman at 5-foot-6 and about 200 pounds and ended up 6-1, 240. All that hard work in the offseason — I’d wake up at 4:30 in the morning to go hit the weight room, eating healthier with the help of coach (Antoine) Lewis. We worked hard, we strived to have success, and that’s what these guys need to keep doing to become a good program again.”
Smith said he repeatedly pointed to Epstein as the example his younger players needed to follow, not only to become better football players, but better students and better young men.
“The bottom line is, they are all student-athletes. I tell my guys all the time, the student part comes first because without that, there’s no athlete. A guy like Matt, who sets such a high bar academically, that really sets the example for the younger kids,” Smith said. “And having a guy like Matt who excels on the field in every single area was vital to us this year. We struggled in the wins and losses, but the reality is we were a very young football team. And when you see a guy like that, no matter what the score was, he was always cheering guys on and encouraging his teammates. To have that, it just speaks volumes to his character and it shows the younger kids what is expected moving forward.”
Epstein and the Mustangs may have finished with just one victory this year, be he said that’s not what he’ll carry with him as he moves on in life.
“I’ll remember all the friends I’ve made along the way,” he said. “The games, you’ll remember them, but you’ll never forget the friends you made.”
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN