For three years of his high school football career, Ismail Ay was a non-descript member for the Lyndhurst Golden Bears.
Ay was your typical program guy, someone who moved up the ladder after playing football for the first time as a freshman. Ay played junior varsity as a sophomore, then was a special teams performer as a junior.
It almost ended right there. Ay was just about ready to toss his football career aside before his junior year began.
“Ismail was a frustrated junior,” Lyndhurst head football coach Rich Tuero said. “He wanted to quit. He thought he was wasting his time with us. I told him that he had to stick with us, that he would get his chance.”
Ay started to make his mark as a member of the Lyndhurst scout team last year, helping in practice to get the varsity team ready to play the next game.
“He was a killer on the scout team,” Tuero said. “It wasn’t that Ish wasn’t good enough to play. He just had someone ahead of him that had a little bit of an edge. Ish had a goal to be a player for us, an All-League player.”
When the Golden Bears lost to Rutherford in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II championship game last season, Ay wanted to make sure he was a player of impact for his senior year.
“Losing that game was terrible,” Ay said. “We were up, 14-13, and then the energy went down. That motivated me to come back and try to do the same thing all over again. I think losing was devastating for us, for everyone on the team. I think the motivation was there for all of us to come back, even for the non-starters.”
Ay then made it his passion and his drive to become a starting middle linebacker this season.
“Three months after the last game, I was back in the weight room in the field house every day,” Ay said. “I wanted to come back hungrier. I felt comfortable at middle linebacker and wanted to be there. It was natural to me.”
When the 2019 season began, Ay was indeed the starter at middle linebacker and he played like he had been there his entire life.
“We put it out there for Ish and he just took over,” Tuero said. “It’s been lights out. I knew he could do it. Here’s a kid who didn’t play football until high school. He had to wait three years to get his chance to play and he ran with it.”
Tuero said that Ay got a ton of tutoring from Lyndhurst assistant coach and defensive coordinator Joe Castagnetti, the former head coach of the Golden Bears.
“He learned so much from Joe,” Tuero said. “I think being with the scout team last year really helped Ish to get ready. Joe coaches the scout team like they’re the starters. But Ish waited for this opportunity. He wanted it.”
Ay has enjoyed some great games during his senior year. Obviously, to collect more than 100 tackles in a high school football season is an amazing feat.
“I told him before the season that he could get 100 tackles,” Tuero said. “I told him that it should be his goal.”
When the Golden Bears defeated Pascack Hills in the first round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Group II playoffs last week, Ay indeed eclipsed the 100 tackle mark.
Last Friday night in the sectional semifinals against Mahwah, Ay added to that incredible total by having the game of a lifetime.
Ay (who comes from an interesting blend of a German father and a Turkish mother) had 16 tackles, four of which went for lost yardage. He had an interception and a fumble recovery as well, helping the Golden Bears defeat the Thunderbirds, 28-14, to advance to the sectional title game this Friday night against Parsippany.
For his efforts, Ay has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Ay keyed a defensive effort that totally shut down the Mahwah’s potent offense, led by top college prospect Kyle Teel, the younger brother of former Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel.
Before the game, Teel was the high school version of Lamar Jackson, running and throwing all over the field. But thanks to the efforts of Ay, Teel was limited to just 27 yards rushing on 16 carries.
“The game plan was to defend Teel,” Ay said. “He was the target. I had to get him to the ground. We practiced for it and we were ready. It felt great. Our defense really showed up for the game. My job was to shadow Teel. I was watching him the whole time. On the interception, he actually helped me, because I read his face. I knew where he was going. It was just one of those things.”
“They couldn’t run the ball at all,” Tuero said. “It was amazing. Ish had a tremendous game.”
Ay now has 118 tackles for the season.
“I told him that his goal now should be 150,” Tuero said. “We have to raise the bar. Why not try? He could do it. He’s just been awesome. It’s an awesome story.”
“Before the season, the goal was to get 100 tackles or more,” Ay said. “I was confident that I could do it. I felt great in the whole process. After the game, I didn’t know how many tackles I had, but I love adding to the stat sheet. It just gives me more confidence in myself.”
Of course, the Golden Bears were led offensively once again by the incredible exploits of “The Polish Assassin,” namely Piotr Partyla, who rushed for “only” 188 yards on 22 carries and three touchdowns.
When a kid goes for 316 yards two weeks ago and a school-record 368 yards last week against Pascack Hills, it’s almost comical to say that Partyla had only 188 yards this week. Partyla now has an astounding 2,231 yards rushing and 32 touchdowns this season. Partyla leads the entire state in rushing yards.
Ay, who lines up at fullback to block for Partyla in many formations, roots hard for his teammate.
“Pete brings an energy to the whole team,” Ay said. “Every time he gets a big run, it helps us so much. Sure, it’s a team effort at the end of the day, but it’s great to see him succeed.”
Now that Ay has a full season under his belt, Tuero believes that Ay could play college football somewhere next fall.
“I told him that he could be a tremendous (NCAA) Division III football player,” Tuero said. “No doubt he could do it.”
Ay doesn’t know what his plans are yet for next year. He would like to play college football next fall, but he’s not sure where. Ay would like to study criminal justice in school with the eventual goal to become a police officer.
Needless to say, Ay is glad he stuck it out and remained with the Golden Bears. Look at his reward.
“I’ve made a lot of friends playing football,” Ay said. “I originally wanted to play basketball. I tried and couldn’t do it. I like hockey and played hockey. But playing football has been one of the best experiences of my life. I’ve loved it. It’s amazing.”
And if the Golden Bears defeat Parsippany Friday night and capture the sectional title, the first sectional crown since the great undefeated school-record season of 11-0 in 1983, then the Golden Bears will get to play in the Group II Super Bowl game at MetLife Stadium in two weeks.
“That would be so awesome to run through the tunnel and on to the field at MetLife,” Ay said. “That would be insane.”
Tuero knows that Ay is happy he stuck around.
“He told me, ‘Thank you for not letting me walk away,’” Tuero said. “He stuck with the process and now he’s getting rewarded for his patience.”
NOTE: Last week, it was incorrectly reported that the Golden Bears would tie the record for wins in a season at Lyndhurst. That was not the case. The Golden Bears are currently 10-0 and need one more win to tie the mark of the state sectional champions of 1983. We apologize for the error.
Lyndhurst senior middle linebacker Ismail Ay. Photo courtesy of Ismail Ay
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”