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Wyandanch High School boys track coach teaches respect, self-esteem

Patricia Taylor shows her team some moves at

Patricia Taylor shows her team some moves at a recent practice for the boys track team at Wyandanch Memorial High School. She ran track in high school and college, at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Ricardo Alvarado was feeling about as low as the flier he found on the street near Wyandanch Memorial High School two years ago.

"I never saw anything in me," Alvarado, now 16 and a sophomore, recalled of his self-esteem at the time.

The flier was an invitation to train with the school's track team. Alvarado showed up and ran what he felt certain was the slowest time of the day in front of a bunch of upperclassmen.

He may have braced himself for criticism and ridicule, but neither came. Instead, the team cheered him, surrounding him to offer praise and accept him.

Mama T's "gentlemen" were doing her proud.

That's what Patricia Taylor calls her young male charges, who named her Mama T a couple of years ago. Seeing the positive is part of Taylor's nature, and it's a necessity on Mama T's track. Taylor is one of the only women on Long Island who coaches a boys team, and the name fits.

Drink some water straight from the cooler and Mama T will catch you. If you walk away from her and she's not sure you got the message, there's a good chance you'll be summoned back. She'll point her index and middle fingers toward her eyes and reinforce the previous message with, "You got me?"

This is Taylor's 10th year as coach at Wyandanch, where she also is a teaching assistant for special-education students. She runs a tight ship but is a steadying presence for her runners, jumpers and throwers, who last year numbered 60. The memory of how she got her nickname still elicits a laugh.

"How come you're everybody's mama?" Taylor recalled being asked by Austin Christie and Damon Daniels, two former team members.

The answer is because they allow her to be. That's clear when you stand on the Wyandanch track and notice that Taylor, a resident of Bay Shore, doesn't go hug her squad nearly as much as they come up to her for hugs.

 

An athlete herself

Taylor is among a handful of other women who coach boys teams on Long Island. At Wantagh High School, Lisa Fugazzi coaches the volleyball team; Russi Villata coaches the volleyball team at John F. Kennedy High School in Plainview; and Dawn Vallone coaches the boys bowling team at Bay Shore High School.

Taylor is no stranger to the track. In the late 1970s she was on the girls team at Bay Shore High School, where she specialized in the long jump and the high jump, and also played on the soccer team. She graduated in 1980 with a good GPA and a healthy disdain for negative reinforcement. She was in line for a college soccer scholarship but really wanted a scholarship to run track, so she sought out an educator at the high school for guidance about what to do. According to Taylor, he looked at her 3.4 GPA and told her that someone of her race couldn't earn grades like that.

Taylor ended up attending the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury without a track scholarship but still ran on the team. Years later, she coached the daughter of the high school educator who questioned her academic aptitude and reports it was a pleasant experience.

Taylor loves to coach. She enjoys it so much, she said, that she wasn't deterred when she got to Commack High School to help coach girls track while still competing at NYIT and was met with a racial slur from one of the students.

Racism hasn't been Taylor's only challenge over the years. She would go on to be the head coach of the combined boys and girls track teams at Bellport Middle School, then worked as an assistant at the high school. She left education in 1998 over a difference in coaching styles, she said, and returned in 2000, first as a substitute teacher and then as a teaching assistant at Milton L. Olive Middle School in Wyandanch, which is next to the high school.

She stopped teaching in 2002 after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. She returned in 2004, about the time Wyandanch needed a track coach.

People were unfamiliar with Taylor's track past, but the athletic director at the time knew Taylor from their days at Olive Middle School — where he had been the wrestling coach — and remembered the rapport she had with the students there.

He took a chance on her and Taylor made him a promise.

"If you give me five years, I will make a name for the Wyandanch boys track team," she vowed.

In her first year as coach, two of Taylor's runners earned all-league honors, and by 2006, she had her first state champion, Craig Slaughter, who won the 200 meters.

Despite those accomplishments, challenges remain. Budget constraints make Wyandanch — whose mascot is the Warrior — the only school on Long Island without a two- or three-season team. It has an outdoor track team in the spring but no cross country in the fall or winter indoor season. So, in the offseasons, Taylor keeps her athletes in shape and hyped up for when track season comes around.

She's not the only one keeping the team on track. During a recent practice session, Taylor's assistant coach, Jim Veneroni, and volunteer coach Evette James looked on as football players who also run track talked about the influence of Taylor's mentoring.

James has been a special-education teacher at Wyandanch High for 17 years. She is also the special-education coordinator at the high school, whose graduation rate is one of the lowest on Long Island, according to Newsday's 2012-13 database.

As Alvarado, who is an 800-meter runner, and some of his teammates talked about being down on themselves before joining the track team, James listened and understood, because she once walked the same halls. The revelation to new students never fails to inspire shock and awe.

"Oh, you graduated from here?" they say with a look of amazement.

"It's hard to leave all of that, that Wyandanch cloud," James said. "They look for anything to lift them up from that."

And Mama T will look for them. A lunch period can instantly morph into shot-put tryouts as Taylor seeks new talent.

In Malik Jones' case, she saw him running next to the school's track on 32nd Street when he was a student at Olive Middle School — students there train with those at the high school — and started recruiting him.

She made a deal with Jones when he was in ninth grade: Come try track for one week, and if you don't like it, you don't have to come back. Jones, who is 18 and a senior, did like it and is a 400-meter runner on the team.

"Every moment is the best moment," Jones said. "You should cherish it because you may not get it again."

It seems Taylor doesn't pass up a chance to keep track on her squad's radar.

"There's not once when I see her in school that she doesn't come up to me and say, 'Are you ready for track today? Are you ready for track today?' " said senior Jose Flores, 17.

Enthusiasm is more of a prerequisite than speed, as Taylor repeated one of her rallying cries to the teens.

"If I'm showing more passion than everybody else, someone's got to go, and it's not going to be me," Taylor said, adding that, unlike NBA star LeBron James, she's not "taking her talents" anywhere else.

That's fine with Wyandanch principal Paul Sibblies.

"Ms. Taylor has been one of the most motivated, passionate, motherly individuals you'll find in this community," he said. "She goes far beyond her duties as an educator."

Sibblies knows that Taylor will pull an athlete off the track if he doesn't meet her standards of conduct and classroom performance. But he adds that the students appreciate the mentoring and view Taylor as a mother figure, which is especially helpful when they have a personal issue at home that could affect learning. Taylor has guided them through those issues, Sibblies said, then sat with them to help complete college essays and apply for financial aid.

 

More than 100 percent

Taylor starts talking about taking her 1994 Ford van and then her 1999 Chevy van to drive students to USA Track & Field Long Island events in the fall and winter. Without indoor track and cross country, they're the only options to allow some of those on her team to compete during those seasons, and she often dips into her own pocket to make it possible.

Taylor credits fundraising efforts by the school to pay for things like food on road trips, but first-year Wyandanch school district athletic director Tom Williams said Taylor shoulders much of the expense.

"I can't thank her enough," Williams said. "And the kids thank her by doing the right thing. That's what every coach wants."

It's true for Edgar Zelaya, 17, who said he had a bad reputation before falling under Taylor's wing.

"She's like a second mother," said Zelaya, whose events are the shot put and discus. "She's always told me to do good, never give people a hard time. I've been a different Edgar."

Taylor doesn't think much about coaching boys instead of girls, but she admits she can be a little more gruff with the guys.

"I let them know it's out of love," Taylor said.

The team once tried to reciprocate the feeling. The idea was for them to treat her to Applebee's for dinner — until they saw the bill. Once again, Taylor didn't mind helping her guys out since they were trying to do the right thing.

"They're my gentlemen," Taylor said. "And I'll always call them my gentlemen."

 

HELPING HER 'GENTLEMEN' STAND OUT

For the past few years Patricia Taylor, boys track coach at Wyandanch Memorial High School, has taken some of her top athletes in April to the prestigious Penn Relays in Philadelphia.

Wyandanch's school colors are green and white. But when they go to Penn, Taylor lets her athletes celebrate their hard work in part by putting them in warm-up attire that is attention-getting, to say the least. One year it was neon orange shirts and shorts.

"They stood out," Taylor said proudly.

There was a more conservative selection another year — gray and blue — but for the 2015 meet, the team is already talking about lime green and yellow.

"That's what they want," Taylor said. "They take pictures and show them to me, and there I go" to buy them.


CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, the team that Dawn Vallone coaches was incorrect.

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