Denis Nelson: The heart of River Dell athletics

Hannah Clancy is a River Dell High School senior, a member of the volleyball and lacrosse teams and an intern for the winter season. The following is her first submission for publication on

Denis Nelson has been the athletic director at River Dell High School since 2002.

ORADELL - River Dell athletic director Denis Nelson found his passion for sports at a young age.  Not only was he a football player, basketball player, and a wrestler; but growing up, his dream was to open a sporting goods store, similar to a Sports Authority but owned and stocked solely by him.  He imagined it would have every sport covered.  There’d be something for everyone.

Nelson felt that being around sports all day every day and providing to the needs of athletes would allow him to continue his passion for sports. 

He attended Montclair State University’s business school to lay the foundation for his dream, but quickly realized it was not where he wanted to spend the rest of his life.  Running a business wouldn’t allow him to channel his passion.

During that time, Nelson had the opportunity to coach youth wrestling in Pequannock, his hometown.

“Attending Montclair State’s business school, I realized I was not enjoying that. I had the opportunity to coach youth wrestling in my hometown and I loved it,” said Nelson during an interview in his over crammed with River Dell sports memorabilia. “I talked to my father about pursuing education in college and he supported me, and believed it was a great idea.”

Nelson was drawn to coaching because he loved teaching the kids who wanted to learn and wanted to get better. Seeing them succeed on the mat and field was so much better than selling equipment and stocking shelves. Nelson switched his major from business to business-education

With this new degree, Nelson was able to become a business teacher and football, wrestling, and girls’ lacrosse coach at West Morris Central High School after he graduated college.

The River Dell athletic office is crammed with memorabilia.

Unsurprisingly, Nelson loved and excelled at coaching at the high school level. Coaching high school there is more at stake, more competition than at the youth levels. At the end of the day, he loved “create{ing] a positive experience, teach[ing] hard work, teamwork, perseverance, failure, and success.”

While at West Morris Central there was an opening to become the assistant athletic director and Nelson jumped at the opportunity.  He realized this role would allow him to marry both of his dreams.  As an AD he could be around sports all day, every day, and still aid coaches and student-athletes in all sports, not only the ones he coached.

Mr. Nelson arrived at River Dell in 2002 taking over the AD position from Walt Hamson and legendary boys basketball coach Brian Long, who preceded Hamson.
Sitting in his office, you’ll see pictures of River Dell athletic alumni covering every inch of his wall, a testament to his enduring impact on the school and its athletics.

Mr. Nelson has been able to accumulate more state, county, and league championships than all of the athletic directors that have come before him combined. He has put so much time, effort, and passion into his job to get River Dell athletics to the place it is today.

He doesn’t do it alone though.  Lisa Corcoran, River Dell’s athletic airector’s secretary, has been working alongside Nelson for the past six years. Corcran takes care of planning the games held at River Dell as well as the buses, physical clearances, and officials for games, meets, and matches. 

Athletic secretary Lisa Corcoran helps keep things running smoothly.

“Mr. Nelson is super easy to work with and is very organized, which makes my job so much easier,” smiled Corcoran.  “River Dell is such a great place to work filled with an amazing staff and students who seem to really love and enjoy it.”

Both Corcran and Nelson can attest that an athletic director’s job is never done.  They worry about hiring coaches, refs for games, event management, and much more. On game days, Nelson shared that he could be at the school for 10 to 12 hours, much more than a teacher’s hours.

Since River Dell hosts some major events like the county relays in track and field and the district tournament in wrestling, Nelson has to create the best plan to have these events run smoothly and efficiently, while accommodating all of the teams, fans, and their safety.

Nelson has also introduced new sports to River Dell athletics, such as girls’ lacrosse where they have been able to win two league titles so far.

Even through all the long, tiresome, stressful busy days, Nelson always shows up the next day, putting 100-percent effort into his job for the River Dell community.

It is evident that Nelson loves what he does, which is why River Dell athletics is at its present pinnacle. His student-athletes ive thanks to him for creating a positive and safe environment where they can flourish.

There’s always been a special place in Mr. Nelson’s heart for teaching and coaching high school students.

“Being able to form relationships and a rapport with your students and players was the best part about the job.”  

And always will be.