By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
After going through an 8-11-1 record a year ago, Nutley High School boys’ soccer head coach Marcellino Marra didn’t know what to expect from the Maroon Raiders this season.
“I had a good sense that we could have a pretty tough team,” Marra said. “We had a good number of kids coming back.”
However, the Maroon Raiders suffered a huge blow in preseason, when standout midfielder Evan McEwan suffered torn ligaments in his ankle, forcing him to the sidelines for an extended period of time.
“Evan is our best player,” Marra said of the three-year starter and captain. “I didn’t know what would happen.”
What occurred is that the Maroon Raiders rallied together without McEwan.
“They responded very well and stepped up in their roles,” Marra said. “When I first heard of his injury, I said, ‘Yeah, we’re in trouble.’ We discussed not making his injury an excuse. We said that even though we’ve lost Evan, we’re going to win regardless.
Added Marra, “I always expect the best from our kids. I knew that they would find a way to improve, that they would work hard and get through the tough times.”
But no one could have ever dreamed that the Maroon Raiders would jump out to a 6-1-1 record in the early going, the program’s best start in recent memory.
“I’m absolutely happy and yeah, I’m surprised a little bit,” Marra said. “You don’t expect to lose your best player and then play better. We’ve had a couple of overtime wins that could have gone either way. We were lucky to get those. But I’m happy with the way they keep progressing.”
One of the main reasons why the Maroon Raiders have been so successful has been the play of their defensive unit, led by senior goalkeeper Michael Diacheysn, who has been sensational thus far in net, collecting four shutouts in their six wins.
“Mike is a great keeper and I’ve been impressed with the way he’s been playing,” Marra said. “He’s kept us in some games. He’s done a great job.”
The Maroon Raiders’ backline is a veteran group, led by senior sweeper Adam Steck and defenders Scott Gonzalez and Nick Brancato. The trio of top defenders has been together for three years, joined now by junior stopper Nick Feraco.
“They all played together last year and that’s a big step,” Marra said. “We work on being a defensive team first. Our objective is to not let the other team score. If we’re able to do that, we’re in good shape. Steck and Brancato have not only been brilliant on defense, but they’ve both scored goals already this year. That’s great, because the defenders are the unsung heroes who never see their names in the paper.”
Senior Charlie Bingham has been a mainstay in the midfield, especially with McEwan on the sidelines.
“He’s stepped up huge,” Marra said of Bingham. “He scored the game-winner we had the other day against Newark Academy from 20-yards out. He’s done a fantastic job.”
The rest of the midfield includes senior Vincent Scalia and juniors Nathan Peraino and Damani Walker.
Marra has an affectionate nickname for Walker.“We call him the ‘Baby- Faced Assassin,’ ” Marra said. “He looks like a little boy. But there’s a lot of mean streak to him and he has a great leg. He can strike the ball well for a little guy.”
The midfield will be bolstered by the return of McEwan this week.
The Maroon Raiders feature three players who share time on the forward line, namely seniors Atsuki Imamura and Andres Salinas and junior Jose Calderon. Salinas is the feel-good story of the program.
“He never played varsity until this year, but he’s been a great surprise, scoring three goals so far,” Marra said. “He loves his role and it gives us good depth. We have a three-headed monster up front.” Imamura has three goals, while Calderon has scored twice.
Marra was asked what the solid early start has meant for his team.
“It’s definitely built a lot of confidence,” Marra said. “We know what we can do now against good teams. We’re just trying to win them one game at a time. We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. But there’s no doubt about the fact we’re better than last year. We want to continue to play solid defense. There’s no secret about that. We’re doing well and working hard. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
So far, it’s worked to perfection for Marra and the Maroon Raiders.