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Former Immaculate Conception head football coach and former standout player Omar Mitchell addresses the Lions during timeout in his tenure at the helm. A strogn lineage of one-time IC players and assistant and head coaches have moved on to successful tenures at other schools as well as tiny Montclair parochial school keeps produces strong alums. (Sideline Chatter photos)
Current Immaculate head coach Ryan Horan (left) talks to former Lion Malcom Henson
Former standout Immaculate player and coach Lou Racioppe has built a strong resume at a number of other schools including at Verona where he is in his second decade as head mentor.
John Finnegan (arms folded), who had solid stint as the head coach at Seton Hall Prep, came to the West Orange parochial school from Immaculate where he had etched perhaps the strongest tenure of any coach in IC football history with two playoff titles. (Photo by Richard Morris/SHP)
Willy Taylor (right), who was fine player, coach and athletic director at Immaculate, moved on to Newark Academy where he guided the Minutemen during tenure there. (Sideline Chatter photo)
Sean Morris, who was fine player at both Immaculate and Fordham, served as an IC head coach before moving on to work on Kevin Hennelly's staff at West Morris and also coach at Hillside.
Immaculate Football Tradition Persists
MONTCLAIR- There is one undeniable fact when it comes to Immaculate Conception football which is that the school has produced more than its fair share of dedicated and successful coaches, many of whom have gone on to do superb jobs at a number of different locales after leaving the Montclair parochial school.
When Willy Taylor left Immaculate Conception back in 2005 after 16 years as a faculty member and coach - and that followed his high school playing days as a Lion - it was not an easy decision by any means.
In fact, the decision was downright gut wrenching
“The thing I relish the most about my playing and coaching days at IC are the strong bonds that I formed with the coaches, players and my teammates,” said Taylor, who also had a stint as the head football coach at Newark Academy where he remains as the school’s director of college placement. “I've never laughed as hard, felt as supported or been as at home at I was at IC. “’Finn,’ (John Finnegan) “Mal” (Mike Malkinski), Joe Kiernan, and everyone else I had the honor of coaching with were fantastic people to be around each and every day.
“I also enjoyed coaching a number of great players and terrific young men at IC like Troy Austin, Omar Cheeseboro, Gil Ross, Sean Morris and Omar Mitchell. I was able to learn from all of them over the years and it’s made me who I am today.”
Taylor, who guided IC to a 3-7 record in 2003 and was also the Montclair parochial school’s athletic director, is just one of the many former IC players and coaches who have- both for family and realistic monetary reasons - moved on to coach and perhaps teach and work in athletic departments or in administrative roles at other places. But, there is always a continuing, core group of ex-Lion players who are ready to step in to fill roles on the current coaching staff for the Montclair parochials.
With the threat of the 92-year-old Montclair parochial school closing its doors back in 2014, the dedicated alumni community from IC came through along with other outside supporters to make sure that life as a Lion in the classroom and out on the playing fields continued.
And, thanks to the school not only surviving, but now thriving again, its fine football lineage continues to live on.
“I think it just comes naturally at a place like Immaculate, that you want to give back, and there is a long history of that,” said Taylor. “Sean Morris, another former head coach, was a standout player at IC, as are most of the guys who were his assistants, like Kelvin Holmes, Omar Mitchell, who later became a head coach, and Mike Malkinski, who has helped out at IC for years with many different coaching staffs.”
“I used to joke with Sean, saying, ‘heck, we don’t even have to exchange game films because both our teams run about the same things offensively,’” continued Taylor. “Really, a lot of what we did at Newark Academy was similar to the Wing-T that Coach (John) Finnegan ran at IC when I was an assistant there.”
Morris, who moved on to become an assistant coach at Hillside in 2010 and then joined Kevin Hennelly’s highly-regarded staff at West Morris, was the head man at IC for five years, compiling a 13-37 record and just one .500 season (5-5 in 2009).
Mitchell, a 1998 IC grad who played his college football at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, had served as an assistant at his high school alma mater for six years before guiding the Lions for three seasons before the program assumed jayvee status for one season in 2014 as numbers dwindled.
His 4-6 team in 2011 included a berth in the Non-Public, Group 1 playoffs where IC lost, 36-6, to St. Mary’s of Rutherford.
In 2013, Mitchell Lions’ squad qualified for the Non-Public, Group 1 playoffs and finished 5-5.
“Making the playoffs is a goal of our team each and every season,” said Mitchell, who left the school after the 2013 season. “Everyone is dedicated to maintaining a very competitive football program here at Immaculate.”
Back to full varsity status in 2015, IC finished 0-9 under coach Fabian Alesandro before athletic director and former assistant football coch Ryan Horan assumed the reins of the gridiron program for the 2016 campaign when the team rebounded to finish 4-6 and boasted much better numbers with a roster of more than 30 players thanks to a good-sized freshmen class.
For the most part, the football tradition at Immaculate has been a rich one. The tiny parochial school nestled in between Cottage Place and Munn Street in Montclair has made 17 appearances in the NJSIAA football state playoffs since the post-season system started back in the fall of 1974. The Lions have been to eight finals and have won four titles.
Two of Finnegan’s best teams, with a coaching staff that included Taylor and Malkinski, were in 1993 and 1994, squads that were led by the likes of quarterback Gil Ross (Rutgers), wide receiver Omar Cheeseboro (Maryland), lineman Troy Austin (Duke) and running back Reggie Johnson. The Lions also won Non-Public, Group 1 in 1998.
Finnegan, who went on to have a solid coaching reign at Seton Hall Prep, was preceded at IC by Lou Racioppe, who like “Finn” was an excellent player during his days in a Lion uniform. Racioppe has gone on to coach at a number of schools, including Verona, where he is still the head coach for what continues to be a fine Group 1 program as he enters his 19 th season.
Other former IC players who also coached at their alma mater include Joe Lennon, who went from IC to continue an outstanding coaching career at DePaul in Wayne, where he is still the athletic director.
The aforementioned Reggie Johnson had been one of Marion Bell’s assistant coaches at East Orange Campus before moving on to new challenges. Bell is the first-year head coach at West Side.
Both the late Patsy Quarto and Joe Kiernan had been longtime members of now retired head coach Ed Lebida’s staff at Montclair High before Lebida left coaching after the 2009 season. Kiernan had both played and coached at IC.
Another talented ex-Lion athlete, Tom Lamont, who formerly worked under Lennon at DePaul, had a long run as one of Ken Trimmer’s lead assistants at Caldwell where he is about to begin his first season as head coach of the Chiefs.
Troy Austin, perhaps the greatest lineman in the modern generation of IC football players, followed up a fine collegiate playing career at Duke by becoming a college assistant at Virginia Commonwealth before then assuming the post of athletic director at Longwood ( Va.) University where he remains today.
Mike Fess, Brian Mooney, Jim Kiernan (Joe’s twin brother), Mike Critchley and Jay McManus are among the other ex-IC players to spend time on the Lions’ coaching staff through the years. Fess is now the head boys basketball coach at James Caldwell High School.
Quarto had been the elder statesman of former IC gridders who have spent long tenures coaching before he retired from the football sideline in 2009. A former standout halfback on the 1963 Lion squad, Quarto played under Head Coach Don Panciello.
Quarto had been either the defensive coordinator, or one of the key assistants for the Mounties for two decades through the 2009 season. He also recently also retired as Montclair High’s head golf coach following the 2013 spring campaign.
One interesting historical note on IC football directly after Quarto’s 1964 graduation is that the school actually dropped football for six years in the mid-to-late-1960’s, when a player suffered a serious injury on the field that led to permanent paralysis.
Football was reinstated at IC in 1970 as a brand-new program and the Lions also resumed their Thanksgiving series with Our Lady of the Valley.
Critchley, who would go on to be the head coach at IC in 1980, preceding Racioppe, played his final game as a Lion player in the 1970 game with Our Lady of the Valley, and he caught a 9-yard TD pass for the lone IC score in a 20-6 OLV victory.
“People not associated with Immaculate may not realize just how tight a family unit it is at the school, and for all the students long after their high school days are over,” said Finnegan, who was a standout player under Coach Jack Jones at IC through his graduation in 1973, and both the head football coach and athletic director at IC before leaving to take over the head coaching post at SHP in 2003. “Immaculate is one special place and none of us will ever forget our days there as a player or a coach.”
Taylor certainly relishes the extended family of Lions who have made a name for themselves both at IC and elsewhere.
“The Immaculate coaching tree is pretty impressive, isn't it?,” Taylor offered with a wide smile. “Finn wins two titles at IC and built Seton Hall Prep back to a place where they were very respected during his run there, ‘Coach Lou,’ who was my old coach at IC, is continuing a great coaching career at Verona, while Jack Jones, Ralph Pacifico - during this time at both MKA and Montclair State - and Joe Lennon at DePaul have all done great jobs in coaching. Plus, there is Daryle Weiss, who had been at Bates and is now the head coach for the new sprint football team ready to begin its inaugural campaign at Caldwell University.
“Sean Morris at West Morris, Jameel Brown, who had a stint as a defensive coordinator at Newark Academy and Ben Sirmans who coached at three different Football Bowl Championship-level schools and then coached running backs for the St. Louis Rams in the NFL are more former IC players who have gone on to etch their own impressive coaching marks.
‘Wow!...To have my name with theirs is just unreal. When you coach at IC there's a huge emphasis on doing things, the little things, well and being prepared. I've never been a part of a harder working staff guys who understand the games they coach better. That's passed down. Tradition matters and the guys who come back after playing do things the way they were taught. There really is an "IC way" of coaching.”
Among the all-time IC greats have been Marcus Hackett, Sr., a Parochial all-state wide receiver with the Lions from 1977-79, and his brothers, Mims, Michael, Merlin and Myron, excelled at IC during their playing days. As a sophomore, Marcus helped lead the Joe Lennon-coached 1977 Lions to the North Jersey, Parochial B championship, defeating Pope John, 17-14, in the final to cap an 8-3 campaign.
The Immaculate Conception connection in a rich high school coaching community lives on. This fall, under the guidance of Horan and his staff it’s hopeful that the present-day Lions can relive some of the past glories and keep improving as a program thriving in terms of interest from the athletic-minded student body which coincides with a true renaissance in the school itself.
Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister
Immaculate Conception football games have always included strong support from fine cheerleading squad along with enthusiastic fan support from other students on hand.
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