WCTI's Epstein made significant impact in ENC tenure

WCTI's Epstein made significant impact in ENC tenure

WCTI ABC-12’s Ariel Epstein has spent two-and-a-half years in Eastern North Carolina. Her final day at WCTI is Sunday. Photo by Bryan Hanks / Neuse News

Although she’s only been in Eastern North Carolina for two-and-a-half years, WCTI ABC-12’s Ariel Epstein has made a lasting impact.

Epstein’s final day as a sports reporter and weekend sports anchor for WCTI is Sunday. Epstein and station management were unable to come to an agreement on her contract, so she is leaving ENC to return home to New York.

“The station wants me here and I want to be here, too, but we all know money and certain circumstances can play factors,” Epstein said.

A STRONG FIRST IMPRESSION

The Syracuse University graduate came to ENC in September 2016 as WCTI sports anchor Brian North’s understudy. North has had several sports reporters work for him since he came to ENC in the late 1990s, but Epstein was his first to come to New Bern straight out of college and with no prior professional experience.

Ariel Epstein poses for a photo before a Carolina Panthers game.

He was immediately impressed with her work ethic.

“She was very receptive to learning and listening,” North said. “There are always worries about when you work with kids straight out of college if they’ll have work ethic or if they’ll be willing to do the daily grind. But she immersed herself right in it and never quit. She’s also gotten much stronger as time has gone on.”

Adopting North’s ethic of hyper-local sports coverage — former Lenoir Community College baseball coach Lind Hartsell once said, “If there is a ball bouncing or being thrown or sports happening in any corner of Lenoir County, Brian North is there” — Epstein embraced the challenge to learn from her mentor.

“He has been so awesome to me — I know he’s going to be a mentor to me the rest of my life,” she said of North. “There’s not enough nice things I can say because he was the one who taught me that being invested in the community was going to be the best thing to get me to the next level.”

Her hard work and dedication to her craft made an impression on the coaches and athletes she covered. South Lenoir head football coach Jeremy Joyner lauded her story-telling.

“Ariel always tried to get the best story possible,” he said. “She always asked great questions. She’s going to be sorely missed.”

Although he just finished his first season at North Lenoir, Hawks head football coach Jim Collins was impressed with Epstein’s ethics and drive.

“She is an absolute professional,” Collins said. “Even though we had a really bad year, she was always so genuine — and that’s a breath of fresh air in that industry.”

THE HIT HEARD ‘ROUND KINSTON

Epstein not only displayed her outstanding work ethic in her tenure in ENC, she also showed some serious physical toughness. On Oct. 20, 2017, she was on the Kinston High School football sideline with a camera shooting the Vikings’ game with West Craven.

“I typically use a smaller camera because you always have to keep your head on a swivel when you’re on the sideline,” Epstein said. “But that day, I had to take a bigger camera.”

West Craven quarterback Will Wetherington threw a pass towards the Kinston sideline.

“I remember following the ball when it was in the air, but I lost it for a second,” Epstein said. “The next second, I heard footsteps and said, ‘Oh no’.”

That was the moment West Craven wide receiver Latrell Campbell slammed into her at nearly full speed, knocking the camera from her shoulder. The impact of the hit was so strong her feet went above her head.

“I was seriously wondering if she was going to be able to get up from that hit,” said Kinston head football coach Ryan “Diesel” Gieselman, who was standing only a few yards away from Epstein when she was hit. “It was a vicious hit — I was seriously worried about her well-being.”

But Epstein bounced back up — with a hand from Kinston defensive back B.J. Luter — and immediately put the camera back on her shoulder and started shooting again.

“I didn’t want to be the stereotypical girl that lies on the ground and needs medical assistance,” she said. “I’ve always just bounced back up. I wasn’t thinking about respect or anything, I just didn’t want anyone to think of me as weak.”

Epstein hustled back to the studio and put her clips together for North for the WCTI Friday Night Blitz program. But he could tell something was amiss.

“I knew something was wrong when we started the Blitz and she wasn’t on the set yet,” North said. “I went ahead and started the show and she just wandered onto the set in the middle of the intro.

“I knew then she had probably taken a worse hit than I thought.”

After working several days, Epstein drove to Baltimore and attended a Ravens game with her father the following Thursday. After driving back to New Bern, she started getting headaches and finally visited a doctor, who determined she suffered a whiplash injury and very likely sustained a minor concussion when she was hit.

Her toughness certainly impressed Gieselman.

“She popped back up and proved she was more than just a sports reporter,” he said. “She has a tough mentality.”

‘ARIEL EQUALS YANKEES’

She fell in love with sports at a young age, thanks to her family’s influence. Her maternal grandparents — Martin and Carol Cohen — lived in Bronx, N.Y., and had Sunday season tickets for the New York Yankees.

Epstein attended her first Yankees game with her grandfather, father (Darren) and sister (Alexa) at age 5. She wore a Yankees hat — and a pink princess dress — to the game.

Above, 5-year-old Ariel Epstein at her first New York Yankees game. Below, her first day as an intern for the Yankees in 2015. Submitted photos

“I didn’t care what people thought, because I was at the Yankees game with my family and I thought I was cool,” she recalled with a laugh.

In third grade, her heart was ripped out when the Yankees lost to the Florida Marlins in the World Series.

“I had started feeling something,” she said. “Other girls were in love with N*Sync and the Backstreet Boys but I loved Yankees baseball.”

It was all over a year later when her grandfather and father bought her Derek Jeter’s No. 2 jersey — the jersey of her all-time favorite New York Yankee.

“My dad says it’s the greatest regret of his life, because he’s an Orioles fan,” she said. “I became beyond obsessed with the Yankees; I watched every game in 2004, home and away. On week nights, my homework was done by 7 o’clock so I could watch the games, and I attended every Sunday home game with my grandpa.

“If you go back to my hometown today and ask about me, they’ll say, ‘Ariel equals Yankees’.”

Epstein met her hero at a baseball clinic when she was 12 and eventually interviewed Jeter a few years later when she was interning for the Yankees in the summer of 2015. Jeter had retired the year earlier but was back in the Bronx for the number retirement of Jorge Posada and Andy Petitte.

“I’ve never been happier in my life to get up in the morning than I was for those three months with the Yankees,” Epstein said. “I begged my bosses to let me interview (Jeter). They valued my work for them, so they let me.

“I had to mic him up, so my hand was shaking when I did that. I had always been told if you can get through that one special interview, you can get through anything — that was the interview for me.”

‘ALL THE POTENTIAL IN THE WORLD’

Epstein isn’t sure what’s next for her professional career, other than that she wants to remain in the sports field. But she’s also looking forward to spending time with her family.

“I have a lot of contacts in New York and I’ve already set up several meetings to talk,” she said. “I don’t have any real plans yet other than to go home and spend some time with my family. I have a 12-year-old brother (Brendan) who is the love of my life and my dogs and incredible grandparents who are the reason I’m in sports, so I’m looking forward to slowing down and spending some time with family.”

North is certain whatever Epstein aspires to, she will be successful.

“She has all the potential in the world,” he said. “Her strengths are her ability to interact and communicate with the people she’s covering. I could easily see her working for a team, either working sidelines or otherwise. She’s very talented and her personality is going to help her get that next job.”

While her favorite event to cover in the Neuse News area was the Kinston-Greene Central basketball rivalry, Epstein said she will never forget the thousands of fans, coaches and athletes she covered in her time in ENC.

“The stellar athletes that come out of here, the star power, the athleticism is remarkable,” she said. “I knew Brandon Ingram was from here before I came here, but that was the extent of my knowledge of the area.

“From a human aspect, people here are the nicest I’ve ever encountered anywhere. People never just wanted to speak with me, they wanted to get to know me and immerse me into their community. That’s why (ENC) will always mean so much to me.”

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