By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
The Nutley High School football team posted a 5-5 record in 2013. With any luck, that record could have been dramatically better.
“We lost three games where we had leads going into the fourth quarter,” said Nutley head coach Tom Basile, who enters his third season as the head coach of the Maroon Raiders. “We have to do a better job of finishing football games. That’s our goal this year. We have to finish better.”
Basile said that the Maroon Raiders’ season ending victory over Wayne Valley, a game where Nutley came from behind to win, has been a giant stepping stone into the 2014 season.
“We’re using that game as a springboard,” Basile said. “We have a lot of kids coming back from that team. It’s a different year, with a different schedule, but with a lot of the same kids, we feel good about our chances. The kids have really been receptive. I couldn’t be any happier.”
The Maroon Raiders will face different foes such as Caldwell, Weequahic and Irvington in 2014, shifting divisions in the Super Essex Conference.
“We have good senior leadership,” Basile said. “We have good impact players.”
One of the impact contributors will be senior quarterback Rob Melillo (6-2, 190). Melillo was the junior varsity quarterback for the last two seasons and gets his chance to finally start this fall.
“He did bide his time,” Basile said of Melillo. “He runs smart. He runs more like a fullback than a quarterback. He is smart with the ball and has a gun for an arm. His accuracy is good and manages the offense well.”
Senior Frank Malanga (5-9, 180) is the returning starter at fullback.
“He’s a hard-nosed runner who is also a good lead blocker,” Basile said. “He runs our Veer option and misdirection well.”
The key to the Raiders’ offense is junior running back Craig Merkle (6-0, 195).
“A year ago, we tried to bring him along slowly and he ended up being our leading rusher and tackler,” Basile said. “He did everything for us, running, catching passes, scoring touchdowns (11). We realized midway through last year that he was our best player. He’s everything and more.”
The other running back is junior Devin Merritt (5-9, 170), whose father, Dave, is the defensive backs coach for the New York Giants.
Senior Pete Russo (5-11, 175) is a sure-handed wide receiver who also serves as the backup quarterback. Junior receiver Anthony Condito (5-10, 170) is also a quarterback.
“All three are going to be on the field at the same time,” Basile said. “We feel pretty fortunate to have all three play quarterback.”
Senior Jason Hoffman (6-1, 230) is the starting tight end.
Senior Kevin Davis (6-3, 230) is a returning starter at offensive tackle, joined by junior August Mustardo (6-0, 195). Senior Jesse DeFuria (5-9, 215) returns to his starting slot at guard, joined by junior Devin White (5-10, 195).
The center is senior Joe Iorio (5-10, 190), who is a converted fullback.
“Joe started the season last year as our starting fullback,” Basile said. “We moved him back to center this year. He played center as a little kid, so he knows what he’s doing.”
The Maroon Raiders will utilize a 3-4 defensive set this season to better use their personnel.
“We felt that we had a lot of talent at linebacker, so we made the transition to 3-4 to get them all on the field,” Basile said.
Senior Austin Brendel (6-2, 190) joins Hoffman at defensive end, flanking DeFuria at nose guard.
Merkle is a standout at outside linebacker. He made 81 tackles to lead the team last fall. Merritt is the team’s other outside linebacker.
Malanga and Iorio return to their starting slots at inside linebacker, so the Maroon Raiders have three returning players at linebacker. Not many teams have that kind of experience at that position.
Seniors Kevin Goudie (5-9, 165) and Chris Ammiano (6-1, 170) are the cornerbacks.
Russo returns to the safety slot, where he earned All-SEC and All-Essex County honors a year ago, tying for the state lead in interceptions with eight. Incredibly, Russo made six of those interceptions in two late-season games.
Andrew Aiello (5-9, 170) is a senior who starts at the other safety slot.
The Maroon Raiders open the 2014 season against neighboring rival Belleville at Belleville on Sept. 12.
Basile really likes the makeup of his team.
“They have formed a little bit of a bond,” Basile said. “They really worked hard together in the offseason. We have a great group of leaders, a group of kids who do everything together. They hang out together off the field. They really are buddies. We profess that we’re not a team, that we’re the Nutley football family.
But that’s for real with these kids. They really are a family.” And if they can figure out a way to close out games this season, maybe they will return to the state playoffs.
“That’s what we’re hoping for,” Basile said. “We wanted to establish a tradition of contending for a state title every year.”
This could be the year that the Maroon Raiders make a return to glory.