IRVINGTON, NJ — Since becoming the Irvington High School athletic director in the summer of 2017, John Taylor has accomplished many things.
Taylor, a native of Washington state, helped launch new sports programs, such as girls lacrosse, girls flag football, girls wrestling, boys volleyball, boys and girls golf, and competitive cheerleading.
He also revived the IHS athletic hall of fame, which had been dormant for many years.
Taylor, 42, secured a wrestling mat worth over $10,000 from the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. It was a joint donation from the NJSIAA and the U.S. Air Force. The mat had been used for the state finals in Atlantic City.
But to Taylor, the most important thing is getting his coaches recognized. Each year, he has successfully nominated several of his coaches to receive Teachers Who Rock awards, which are awarded by the New Jersey Education Association through the radio station WDHA-FM. Those IHS coaches are boys basketball head coach Elias Brantley, softball coach Jenna Weiss, bowling coach Myles Hart, boys soccer and boys tennis coach Salim Laib, and girls volleyball and boys volleyball coach Paul Tortorella.
Taylor was recently named the 2022 Varsity Brands National Athletic Director of the Year.
Before coming to IHS, Taylor served for five years as the athletic director for Beloved Community Charter, an elementary/middle school in Jersey City. He previously spent five years as a physical education teacher at Wellspring Academy, a school for obese middle school and high school students in Brevard, N.C., where he helped more than 170 students lose a combined 12,000 pounds. In addition, Taylor, a physical fitness guru, hosted a reality TV series about obese students whose goal was to lose weight through physical activities.
In 2019, thanks to Taylor’s nomination, Brantley received the LifeChanger of the Year Award from the National Life Group for his efforts in buying, out of his own pocket, screen printing equipment for apparel for his boys basketball players. The award goes to educators who go above and beyond for their students.
Taylor also helped several IHS coaches get inducted into the NJSIAA’s hall of fame. Before he was Irvington’s athletic director, the NJSIAA hall of fame had just two members. But Taylor successfully lobbied to get more IHS coaches inducted, including track head coach Marvin Hawkins, former boys basketball coach Kurt Fenchel, former boys soccer head coach Rob Osieja and former football head coach Darnell Grant. He also nominated IHS girls track head coach Barnes Reid and former IHS football and track star Josh Evans, though they did not get inducted this year.
When former IHS football and wrestling standout Nashawn Brooks was tragically killed in a car accident in June 2020, Taylor worked with other athletic directors in Essex County to raise money for his funeral. Brooks had just completed his freshman year at Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y., as a football player on an athletic scholarship. Brooks, in his senior year at IHS, was named the wrestling Essex County Tournament’s most outstanding wrestler.
Taylor also nominated and heavily advocated for former IHS football player Mikai Gbayor to be the 2020 Maxwell Football Player of the Year. Gbayor currently plays linebacker for the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Taylor also nominated and heavily advocated for Ray Simmons to win the Kearny Bank Strength Award in 2020.
Taylor felt extremely humbled to receive this prestigious national honor.
In an email to the Irvington Herald, Taylor said, “There are a lot of very good athletic directors out there. In Essex County alone, there are many that I admire and seek guidance from on a regular basis. I’m sure Dan Romano (Caldwell), Gerhard Sanchez (Essex County Schools of Technology), PJ Scarpello (Montclair), Steve Jenkins (Bloomfield), Rob Gogerty (Cedar Grove), Anthony Minnella (West Essex), Rich Porfido (Livingston), and Adrian Bosolasco (East Side) will tell you I call them a lot to get their thoughts on how they’d handle situations. There are dozens of athletic directors I work with each day that could have easily earned this same honor. I would advocate to the parents of Essex County that their children are in good hands with these athletic directors in charge. I was really humbled to find out I was nominated, and I was speechless when I was informed by the awards committee that I had won.
“I have the best secretary an athletic director could hope for. Ms. Gwen Murray has been in the athletics office since 1996. When I started in 2017, I was the sixth athletic director in an eight-year period. She helped me with so many facets of the job. Everything from how to write a purchase order to contacting assignors to developing budgets to payroll procedures. But beyond that, the genuine warmth she exhibits towards our athletes. She is someone the athletes can come to when they need someone to talk to and has a genuine passion for Irvington athletics. It’s definitely not uncommon for Ms. Murray to cry tears of happiness after a big Blue Knights victory or during national signing day. I would never get this kind of recognition if not for the help of Ms. Murray.”
Though wins and championships are great, Taylor recognizes that developing character is most important.
“In the end,” he said, “the athlete’s and coach’s success is my success. I don’t really mean wins and losses. Rather, I mean opportunities to improve a student’s character, social skills, discipline and perseverance. I always aim for athletics to be used as a vehicle to help students leave Irvington High School as better people.
“This honor is really a by-product of the efforts of the Irvington High School coaches, athletes, administration, school board members, parents, and our community,” Taylor said. “I came to Irvington in 2017 with certain goals in mind. My biggest goal was to expand the athletic opportunities for our students. I felt like IHS had such a large student population, and we could definitely accommodate more programs to serve the interests of our student-athletes. Since 2017, the district administration has been supportive in adding girls bowling, boys volleyball, girls wrestling, girls lacrosse, girls flag football, boys and girls golf, and competitive cheerleading. We have also added freshman teams in both boys and girls volleyball. This is exceptional growth in a five-year period. I will always be grateful for the Irvington Board of Education and superintendent’s office for supporting this expansion.”
Taylor praised his coaches for what they have accomplished for their teams.
“I feel lucky to have members of the athletic department make our programs shine,” he said. “Coach Ashley Pierre (football) has won six consecutive Super Football Conference divisional championships, and won the first sectional and regional championship in the 104-year history of the program. More importantly, he has helped more than three dozen football players earn a free college education by using football as the vehicle. Kyle Steele is one of the most respected wrestling coaches in the state. I receive phone calls from the other coaches about how they love his abilities. He was able to take girls flag football, a brand-new program, and the team made the state finals in year one, and won a state title in year two.
“Our track coach, Marvin Hawkins, is in the NJSIAA hall of fame for a reason. He has won more state and sectional championships than he has fingers. More importantly, he is always able to have athletes leave the program and compete in college while earning their education.
“Our boys basketball coach, Elias Brantley, is a tireless worker. I sit back and watch him coach and often wish he could coach my daughters. I may be biased, but I feel like, when Brantley is coaching, other teams know they are in for a long night. He’ll always have his team ready to play.
“Myles Hart was able to take a brand-new girls bowling program in 2019 and have them succeed immediately. Our girls have finished second place in the American Division each year they have existed. More importantly, an Irvington bowling practice is a phenomenal atmosphere. There’s a reason why Hart gets 40 bowlers out each year; he makes it fun for the students.
“Brett Cannon’s passion for his girls basketball team is always on display. He is constantly talking about strategy and game plans. He and I often have conversations until 11 p.m. about the opponent the next day. I don’t mind that; give me Coach Cannon’s passion any time of the day.
“Kaleigh DeLucca was thrusted into two head coaching roles with little notice: girls soccer and girls lacrosse. She is a teacher on the field, but you can also see how her players adore their time with. She has taken students with little or no experience in either sport and gets them ready to compete. Her work ethic is phenomenal, and the students are lucky to have her.
“Jenna Weiss’ commitment to the softball team is ideal. She is constantly advocating for her team in terms of equipment, uniforms and scheduling. It’s really tough for me not to find a way to get Weiss what she is asking for when I see the passion, time and caring she has for her team. It’s year round and unwavering. You can definitely see how the players love to be members of IHS softball because of Coach Weiss.
“Paul Tortorella (boys and girls volleyball) is a good man who has this innate ability to build the confidence of his players. In five years, I’ve never seen an IHS volleyball team who thought they’d lose a game. Tortorella’s approach and ability to build relationships with his players not only helps build their confidence on the court, but I have to believe that confidence and self-belief transfers over into other areas of their life.
“Salim Laib (boys soccer and boys tennis) is second to no one in terms of getting the most out of his players. We have so many soccer and tennis players who try out and have never played before. Laib is able to see raw talent and develop his athletes into quality varsity players. The students love playing for Laib, and you can see why he has so many four-year players in both sports. … They don’t want to stop playing for him.”
Indeed, Taylor feels blessed to work with so many great individuals in the IHS athletics department.
“I’m grateful for the honor,” said Taylor of the national honor, “but really, it’s a symbol of the hard work put forth by the players and athletes. The trust parents have in our program and coaches to ensure their children will be safe. The support of the administration and school board for working with the athletic department to run these programs for the students. It’s amazing to be recognized, but in the end, there’s lots of people in Irvington who deserve recognition.”
Here is the video announcing Taylor’s award:
Photos Courtesy of John Taylor.