By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
As the girls’ high school basketball season was drawing to a close, Nutley High School had a non-descript 9-13 record. The Maroon Raiders weren’t exactly lighting the world on fire.
But Nutley head coach Larry Mitschow thought that his team could be competitive in the state tournament for a few reasons, despite having the No. 13 seed in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III playoffs.
“We played a tough schedule in Essex County (in the Super Essex Conference),” Mitschow said. “So I thought we could hang around in the state tournament. Plus, we had Blair.”
The secret weapon is junior forward Blair Watson, who has been brilliant all season, but even better in the state playoffs.
In fact, Watson has been the big reason why the Maroon Raiders haven’t called it a season just yet.
“Blair has definitely carried us, no question,” Mitschow said. “She’s scoring 80% of our points.”
Watson scored 31 points in the opening round win over West Morris, tallied 21 in the second round win over Orange and last Saturday, Watson had 34 of her team’s 43 points in a 43-38 win over Mendham to advance to the sectional finals against Voorhees, the No. 2 seed.
The North 2, Group III title game was slated to be played Monday night after press time.
Watson drained an incredible eight 3-point field goals in the win over Mendham, a perennial state power.
“No one player could stop her,” Mitschow said. “At the end of the game, they had two and three people on her. She was amazing. She hit some tough shots with kids in her face. She was definitely on.”
The 6-foot-1 Watson has proven that she’s deserving of the scholarship she has already received and accepted from the University of Maryland.
“She’s hitting the 3-pointer regularly now,” Mitschow said. “But she’s also going to the basket more, taking the dribble drive to the rim. We told each one of our players what they needed to do. Blair was very receptive to us telling her what we thought her weakness was and she’s doing that, going to the basket and the free throw line.”
The Maroon Raiders have now won seven straight, including the three wins on the road in the state tournament.
“If someone told me at the beginning of the year that we would be playing for a state sectional title, I would have said, ‘No way,’” Mitschow said. “I knew we could make a run, but to make the finals, probably not. I never would have believed this.”
While Watson has been doing the bulk of the work offensively, Mitschow credited the work of Jen Callaghan and Sara Grueter on defense.
“Those two have definitely stepped up defensively,” Mitschow said. “They were non-stop, working all game. They have been tremendous on the defensive side of things.”
Mitschow also credited the team’s camaraderie. After all, the Maroon Raiders have spent a lot of time on buses lately, especially two long journeys to western Morris County to face West Morris and then Mendham. Ironically, those two are sister schools and they both got in the way of the Blair Train.
“She’s carrying us,” Mitschow said. “You can see it in her face. Without her doing what she’s doing, averaging close to 30 per game, there’s no way we’re here or anywhere close to it. But Blair is relishing the role.”
Mitschow knows that his team is the underdog, despite having one of the best players in the state.
“I don’t know many 13th seeds that advance this far,” Mitschow said. “You look at each Group and there is a bunch of No. 1 seeds and No. 2 seeds. We’re the only dark horse out there. But a lot of it is because of Blair.”
Mitschow was asked if he thought Watson was an All- State player.
“Well, if she’s not All- State, I don’t know who is,” Mitschow said. “In my opinion, she’s the best girl in Essex County and Essex County basketball is great.”
There might be only one thing to slow down the Blair Train – and that’s traffic. Saturday, the Maroon Raiders’ team bus had a tough time getting out of Nutley because of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. “It took us a half hour to get out of Nutley,” Mitschow said. There should have been no traffic difficulties Monday night on the way along Rt. 78 west toward Glen Gardner and Voorhees.
“I know that a lot of people plan on coming,” Mitschow said. “I hope the gym can hold everyone.”
It might not be able to hold back Blair Watson, that’s for sure.