By Ross Forman
One of the best players this past season for Evanston Township High School, a junior forward who led the team with 9 goals in 20 regular-season North-Central Division games, is also the starting first baseman for the Wildkits’ baseball team.
Joe Epler also had 4 assists.
And in the team’s 7 seeding-round games last September and October, Epler had 1 goal and 1 assist.
“I’ve been playing since I was 8 and have played for Evanston the whole time,” Epler said. “I started at forward, then switched to defense as a peewee, then back to forward my sophomore year.”
He skated for the Evanston JV as a freshman, and on the varsity the past two seasons.
Epler won the Evanston “Most Improved Player” Award each of the past two seasons as well.
“We lost a good chunk of our team (going into the 2016-17 season) when a big group of seniors graduated, so this (past season) our team was pretty small and mostly juniors; we only had three seniors,” Epler said. “I felt like we always brought our A-game against really good teams, but then we would play down to the level of teams that were not as strong. For example, we were able to keep up with Loyola Gold for most of the game, and we even beat New Trier Blue in the playoffs. Due to our small number of players, we would sometimes lose steam in the third period. We had an early exit in the league playoffs, but we were able to beat New Trier (Blue) to make it to the second round of the state playoffs. It was definitely a disappointing ending to the season. I believe we could’ve done much better.”
Evanston was the No. 25 seed in the state tournament and shocked No. 8 New Trier Blue, 3-2 in Winnetka on Feb. 22. The Wildkits, though, were then eliminated by Stevenson, 6-1.
“I’m really excited (for the 2017-18 season) because our team will have a lot of seniors, and I’ve been playing with most of them since we were 8 years-old. It’s going to be fun, and I think we can win a lot of games,” Epler said. “My goals are, to win a bunch of games during the regular-season, win the conference championship and make a deep run in the state playoffs.”
Epler is a physical player who admittedly spends a lot of time working below the goal line. “Instead of trying to make a move on someone, I would rather put my body in between them and the puck and try and power by them,” he said. “I’m a big fan of the slapshot, but now that I’m a forward again I don’t get to use it as much.”
Epler models his play after those grinders on the 3rd– and 4th-lines in the NHL, with their similar type of game. He just tries to “grind out chances through passing and playing physical instead of getting all fancy and trying to make moves.”
He added, “I always liked how Andrew Shaw played in front and around the net, though I will say that I’m a little bit bigger than him.”
Epler credits his improved play at ETHS to coaches Del Morris and Ray Ewing.
“I have improved a lot in my puck handling skills,” he said. “It is by no means the strongest part of my game, but by the end of last year I was much more confident with how I handled the puck. Also, I’ve gotten much better making and catching passes.”
Credit also goes to his brother, Matt, a hockey teammate.
“It is definitely interesting,” having my brother on the team, Joe said. “It’s funny because we always seem to be arguing about something at practice or while sitting on the boards, but as soon as we’re out there on the ice together, on the same line in a game, we work together pretty well. We’re both about the same size; he’s a lefty and I’m a righty, so I think we complement each other pretty well.”
Matt Epler had 5 goals, 10 assists in 19 regular-season North-Central games last season.
“He scores more goals than I do, (so) I work hard to create chances for him. He, in turn, does the same for me,” Joe said. “As twins, we have always been very competitive with each other, and that makes us each work hard to be better than the other.”
And how does baseball help Epler’s hockey?
Particularly from a skills standpoint, Epler said. “The hand-eye coordination required for hitting has helped me stay sharp during hockey. Also, baseball is definitely a mental game, and I can apply those skills to hockey,” he added.
“Hockey has helped my body get a lot stronger for baseball, especially my legs and general endurance. Not to knock baseball, but there is a good amount of standing around in baseball, (which) does not happen in hockey.”
But, when asked which he’d prefer – a game-winning slapshot goal in OT, or a game-winning homerun in extra innings – Epler went the baseball route. “There’s just something about a homerun that makes it really exciting and special, and it’s so much fun to run around the bases with everyone cheering,” he said.
Years on Evanston varsity: 2
Favorite NHL Team: Chicago Blackhawks
Favorite NHL Player: Steven Stamkos
Favorite TV Show: The Office
Favorite Movie: The Wolf of Wall Street
Favorite App: Snapchat
Best HS uniforms: BG/H/W
Worst HS uniforms: New Trier
Jersey Number: 77 until high school, then 89
Nickname: Jep (short for Jepler)
Years on Evanston hockey varsity: 2
Years on Evanston baseball varsity: 1
Favorite NHL Team: Blackhawks
Favorite NHL Player: Brent Seabrook
Favorite TV Show: The Walking Dead
Favorite Movie: Interstellar
Favorite App: Snapchat
Best HS uniforms: Highland Park
Worst HS uniforms: Crystal Lake South
Jersey Number: 44 until high school, then 3
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years, and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.