When the NJSIAA wrestling championships were conducted at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City in March, there was a new element to the competition.
In addition to the mats brought in to the arena from an assortment of schools throughout the state, there was also a brand-new Dollamur mat, worth $12,000, that was donated by the United States Air Force.
That mat, however, wasn’t delivered with the intent of storing it away until next year’s championships. Instead, the Air Force wanted it to find a home at a New Jersey school that demonstrated a need for the new mat.
Schools were invited to submit their reasons for being deserving of the Air Force donation. Several did, and Irvington was ultimately chosen as the recipient.
“Thanks to the genorosity of the Air Force, we are able to send the mat to a program that can put it to great use,” said Bill Bruno, the NJSIAA Assistant Director in charge of wrestling.
The Irvington program certainly fits all of the criteria the Air Force had in mind. Despite being an inner-city school where it’s hard to generate participation in the sport, the Blue Knights competed this year in the American Division of the Super Essex Conference, which is the top division of the league which assigns teams to divisions each year based on program strength. Irvington finished next-to-last within the division, but showed its potential throughout the campaign. And of equal importance, with the debut of girls wrestling as a high school sport this past year in New Jersey, Irvington had a number of females go out for the sport.
“Irvington is a city where the vast majority of the population have never heard of wrestling, but that hasn’t stopped our program from consistently being formidable,” said Irvington coach Kyle Steele in his letter that detailed why Irvington was a deserving candidate. “We have over 30 people on our roster, and had six female wrestlers in our first year with the plans of doubling that number next year. We are the only urban school that competes in the top division of our conference, although only one of our wrestlers had wrestled before high school.”
For the program to continue to grow, it needs things like the Air Force-donated mat.
“While we have shown signs of success, for us to grow as a program, it would take resources that we don’t honestly have on our own,” Steele said. “I started a recreational team last year because we needed to have kids coming into high school with some experience. Between being in the top division of the Super Essex Conference in high school and the affluent Tri-County Youth Wrestling League, you notice just how hard it is to do these teams without a booster club or parent support. The opportunity to receive this mat is no small thing to a program like ours who are still using a mat that was in the building when I walked in as a 13-year-old freshman in 1993, and who knows how long before that.”
Dr. John Taylor, the Athletic Director at Irvington, echoed Steele’s appreciation for the Air Force donation.
“Irvington Athletics is overwhelmed by the generosity of the NJSIAA and the U.S. Air Force,” he said. “The goal for all of our programs is to field competitive teams each year, but to also help develop young men and women into upstanding adults. A huge reason for our selection is due to the work of our Head Coach, Kyle Steele. I receive emails from other AD’s and referees each season, and they praise Steele’s coaching, and interactions with Irvington and opposing athletes. Steele is so highly respected in the wrestling community, and he could have his pick of coaching jobs. But as an Irvington grad, he comes back to our wrestling team each year to work with our young men and women. We are ecstatic the NJSIAA and U.S. Air Force took notice of Coach Steele’s program, and have chosen Irvington as this year’s wrestling mat recipient.”
Steele also expressed appreciation to be considered for the donation.
“The consideration of some of the most respected people in the sport is humbling to us as a program,” Steele said. “We try to get better the right way and while right now that might not result in a bunch of kids on the podium in Atlantic City, for us it has led to a bunch of high-character guys leaving the program into college and the real world groomed the way only wrestling could. We will definitely put the mat to good use.”
Those things are exactly what the Air Force was looking for when it made the donation.
“Kudos to the Air Force for doing this,” said Bruno, who is working with another service branch for a similar donation next year. “Not only did their mat help us with the tournament this year in Atlantic City, it will also help a deserving program develop in the future.”