In a day and age where most collegiate athletic departments are slicing teams and programs due to budget constraints and rising costs, New Jersey City University athletic director Shawn Tucker is living up to the promises he made when he took over as the new NJCU athletic director a little more than a year ago.
Tucker recently announced the addition of an astounding seven teams for the 2019-2020 school year – men’s and women’s track and field; men’s and women’s tennis; women’s golf to go along with the existing men’s golf program and perhaps the most energetic and intuitive additions, namely men’s and women’s wrestling. That’s right, women’s wrestling is coming to the Land of the Gothic Knights.
NJCU will be the first New Jersey college to offer women’s wrestling as a varsity sport.
NJCU announced the hiring of Harry Turner to be the men’s wrestling coach. Turner has extensive experience as the assistant coach to Scott Goodale at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
And the school has hired Elena Pirozhkova as the first-ever women’s wrestling coach at the school. Pirozhkova is a two-time Olympian representing the United States in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and was crowned the 2012 World Champion. When Pirozhkova retired from competitive wrestling in 2016-17, she was the No. 1-ranked wrestler in the United States.
The addition of all the athletic teams gives NJCU a whopping total of 21 sports, the highest total of any NCAA Division III school in the Garden State.
“Part of me being recruited to come here was a meeting I had with [NJCU President] Dr. [Joy] Henderson,” said Tucker, a former football player during his playing days at Rutgers. “I wanted to have the opportunity to increase the scope of NJCU athletics.”
Dr. Henderson already had the plans in place to add men’s and women’s track, which debuted last spring. But the rest of the additions have been with the urging of Tucker. He needed to have the entire athletic department on board to agree to the additions.
“Once we put an emphasis on expanding, we had a total team effort,” Tucker said. “We knew we could build something special.”
Tucker wasted no time to get the ball rolling.
“Golf was the next best scope,” said Tucker, realizing that the new Skyway Golf Course would be a good site to hold Gothic Knights’ practices, as well as having an agreement with Forest Hills Golf Club in Bloomfield as a home base for golf matches.
Once Tucker had Forest Hills sealed, he then went to work on initiating the New Jersey Collegiate Cup, a new tournament for the eight NCAA Division III golf programs that NJCU would host for the first year in 2020.
“We’ve done a good job stabilizing the golf program,” Tucker said. “Over the next two-to-three years, we’re going to see the benefit of adding women’s golf.”
Tucker said his connections with Rutgers helped him with the idea of adding men’s and women’s wrestling. He spoke with Goodale, who recommended Turner to take over the fledgling Gothic Knight program.
“Everyone I spoke with said that NJCU was a prime location for wrestling,” Tucker said. “Especially women’s wrestling. Now we have girls competing in New Jersey, so it’s a natural.”
Tucker then met with Kyra Tirana Barry, the team captain for the Team USA Wrestling in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, who now runs the Beat the Streets wrestling program in Hoboken.
“She agreed that with New Jersey recognizing high school wrestling for girls, as well as Pennsylvania and New York City, that it’s a prime location and a prime opportunity,” Tucker said. “As the NCAA begins to recognize women’s wrestling as an emerging sport, we will be in the forefront already.”
Tucker said that a lot of the confidence he has in making men’s and women’s wrestling work at NJCU comes from his experience at Rutgers.
“I think we all saw the great opportunity to add some sports here,” Tucker said. “Coming from a school like Rutgers, I thought that we could add men’s and women’s wrestling here. I think the state of New Jersey as a whole is a very big wrestling state. I just think that everything just aligned itself and we made the decision as a whole. I’m 100 percent confident this will work. It makes it all seem easier than it appears. I’m absolutely confident.”
Tucker has also procured the athletic department’s first true athletic gear contract with Adidas.
“I can see others investing in the athletic footprint we’ve established,” Tucker said.
And ready for this? NJCU had approximately 70 student/athletes participating last semester. As the school year rapidly approaches, Tucker said that NJCU has 120 student/athletes enrolled for the fall semester. And that’s coming from a school that doesn’t offer football any longer – although Tucker, a former football player in high school and in college at Rutgers, tends to dream big.
“Absolutely, football is a thought,” Tucker said. “But it has to come at the appropriate time. We don’t want to rush into it and make mistakes. We want to have Jersey City residents proud of their home institution. We want to make them proud athletically, academically and professionally.”
And Tucker feels that there might be as many as 250-to-300 student/athletes eventually playing sports at NJCU.
“We want to have a highly functional athletic program,” Tucker said. “Having football is actually one of the things I think about.”
So in just 15 months, Tucker has watched the athletic program at NJCU explode and flourish.
“It’s been a good journey,” Tucker said. “I think the culture here has shifted into a first class experience. I didn’t think it would happen this quickly. We now have the foundation to be successful.” – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com