By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Larry Mitschow knew this was going to be a tough season for his Nutley High School girls’ basketball team.
After all, the Maroon Raiders graduated four top players from last year’s squad.
Then, the powers-that-be in the Super Essex Conference decided to move Nutley into a new division of the SEC, the powerful American Division with girls’ basketball mainstays like Mount St. Dominic, Shabazz, East Orange and Montclair, which means the schedule instantly became tougher.
Finally, to throw a complete monkey wrench into the situation, the Maroon Raiders lost two key players to injury, as senior center Brielle Feaster and sophomore forward Angeli Bossbaly were lost for the season. Feaster suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee and Bossbaly was battling a bad back.
“It’s very frustrating,” Mitschow said. “It’s unfortunate, but you have to deal with it.”
So the Maroon Raiders have started out the 2014-15 season with a 3-5 record, the latest game a solid 47-29 victory over neighboring rival Bloomfield last Saturday night.
In the win, junior center Blair Watson scored 30 points, her third game this season with 30 or more points, collecting the 1,000th point of her career in the process.
Watson started off the season with a 40-point performance against Weequahic and had 34 in a win over Newark Tech.
The 6-foot-1 Watson, who is averaging 23 points and 12 rebounds per game, has already given a verbal commitment to the University of Maryland.
“It’s been frustrating for her, because teams are double and triple teaming her,” Mitschow said. “She’s also getting pushed around a little. But she has been doing her best.”
Mitschow believes that having Watson get the recruiting process out of the way early is a blessing.
“There’s no more pressure on her. No one is going to come in to talk to her about school. She’s not going to receive calls or texts. It’s just all made common sense to make the decision now. Maryland is a great program, one of the best in the country. It’s a solid decision.”
Another key returning player is 5-foot-8 senior point guard Carly Anderson.
While Anderson has developed a reputation for being one of the best softball pitchers in New Jersey, she is also a fine basketball player. “She controls the game when she has the ball,” Mitschow said of Anderson. It’s much like what she does when Anderson is in the pitching circle in the spring.
Senior Sara Grueter is a 5-foot-7 shooting guard who has great shooting range, as evidenced by the three 3-pointers Grueter connected on during the win over Bloomfield.
Senior forward Olivia Llaneza is a 5-foot-9 forward who Mitschow likes for the intangibles she provides.
“She’s a good rebounder and good defender,” Mitschow said of Llaneza.
Because of the injuries, Mitschow has been forced to use freshmen players right away. One of those newcomers is Sydney Kunz, a 5-foot-7 guard who is the younger sister of former Nutley baseball and basketball standout Austin Kunz, currently playing baseball at Alvernia College in Pennsylvania.
Another freshman is forward Giavanna Modica, who is a 5-foot-8 diligent worker.
“She started for us our last game,” Mitschow said. “She works very hard.”
Sophomore Jen Callaghan is a 5-foot-5 guard who serves as the backup to Anderson at point guard.
Mitschow knew that it would be a struggle this season with everything that was going on. The graduation, the divisional shift, the injuries, they can all add up to a coach’s frustration.
“We knew it was going to be tough,” Mitschow said. “It’s tough to lose so many players to graduation. Our goal all season has been to hover around the .500 mark and see if we can get into the (NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III) state tournament, so we can play teams we can better compete with. The girls’ basketball in Essex County is so competitive, so with what has happened to us with graduation and injury, it’s all we can hope for.”
It should be interesting to see how far Watson can lead the Maroon Raiders, because she is clearly one of the top juniors in the state of New Jersey and has been producing at a top level, considering she’s topped 30 points in three of eight games already this season.