It didn’t matter that the Nutley High School football team owned a 1-5 record before last Saturday’s matchup with Chatham at the famed Nutley Oval.
Records didn’t come into play.
“We prepared the same way as always,” said Nutley head football coach Tom Basile. “We did what we always do. Our kids aren’t young anymore. They’re experienced. We’re halfway through the season. They’ve been through the wars and know what to expect. Sure, we’re playing for pride, but as crazy as it sounds, we still have a shot at the (NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III) playoffs.”
It’s true. Even with the 1-5 record, the Maroon Raiders would still qualify at the lower half of the bracket. So would Saturday’s opponent Chatham.
So it was a make-or-break type of game for both teams _ and the Maroon Raiders had the lethal weapon on their side.
Junior do-everything Nick Mainiero was sensational again for the Maroon Raiders. Last week’s Observer Athlete of the Week went one step further this week, carrying the ball 32 times for 278 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Maroon Raiders to a huge 17-14 win in the cold mist at the Oval last Saturday afternoon.
The win improved the Maroon Raiders’ record to 2-5 heading into this Saturday’s game against Parsippany Hills at the Oval.
Basile told his team that earning a berth to the state playoffs once again should not be the motivation to play at maximum capacity.
“The main focus should be how they want to be remembered,” Basile said. “They’re playing for pride, but they’re also playing to win games.”
Basile was asked if was impressed with Mainiero’s efforts, which included an 88-yard touchdown run that has to be the highlight of the season for the Maroon Raiders.
With the game tied at 7-7 in the early stages of the third quarter, Mainiero took a simple pitch out and darted to the outside. He got around the perimeter and was off to the races down the sideline. Somehow, he managed to stay in bounds, tight-rope walking down the line.
At around the 50-yard line, Mainiero noticed a would-be tackler approaching him, so he hesitated just for a second to allow his blocker to catch up to him.
But Mainiero didn’t need the blocker. His stutter-step allowed him to change directions and avoid the Chatham player all the way to the end zone.
“It was a rare thing,” Basile said of Mainiero’s brilliant run. “It really was some run. He looked as if he was going to use the blocker, but then he didn’t and he was gone.”
As impressive as Mainiero’s touchdown run was, Basile was more impressed with a carry late in the game.
“With a kid his size, it’s incredible the power he generates sometimes,” Basile said of the 5-foot-6, 145-pound Mainiero.
On a fourth down-and-three and the Raiders holding the 17-14 lead, Mainiero lowered his head and pushed a much larger defender down.
“Nick went right through the guy’s arms and got a five-yard gain,” Basile said. “We got the first down and the clock kept moving. That’s what impressed me more than anything. That run was something special, especially at that point in the game.”
After Chatham scored a touchdown to cut the lead to three points, the Maroon Raiders then managed to run out the final 6:28 by getting three first downs, thanks to their workhorse running back.
Basile also credited his team’s defensive effort.
“Our defense played really well,” Basile said. “We held them to only 54 yards rushing. They could have had a day against us. Their quarterback (Timmy Adams) plays a lot like what we do with Mainiero (in the shotgun pistol formation). They were very similar to us.”
Except that the Maroon Raiders had a secret weapon _ kicker/linebacker Hunter Lechthaler, whose clutch 35-yard field goal in the fourth quarter became the margin of victory.
“Because of him, we always go into the game with the thought that we’re going to win that part of the game,” Basile said. “He’s just two field goals away from the school record. He’s flawless at that part of the field. It’s great for a kid like him to get the game-winner. He also had some great punts for us, like a 56-yard punt that put them back. No doubt, that kid’s foot is a weapon.”
The Maroon Raiders return to action at the Oval Saturday to face Parsippany Hills with both teams now jockeying for a playoff spot. If the season ended today, Nutley would be the No. 7 seed and Parsippany Hills the No. 4 seed in the bracket.
“Either way, we have to win,” Basile said. “You can’t look at it any differently. With our record, we don’t deserve to be in the state playoffs. But we’re facing a good program, a well-coached team Saturday, so we’ll see what happens.”
The Maroon Raiders are just one of three local teams still alive for the state playoffs. The others are Bloomfield in North Jersey Section 1, Group V and Harrison in Central Jersey, Group II. How Harrison is classified as Central Jersey by the state is unknown. Lincoln of Jersey City is also in that section. If the season ended today, Harrison would be the No. 6 seed and traveling to face Bernards in the first round. Bloomfield would be paired with Montclair in the first round of North Jersey Section 1, Group V.
The Raiders are still alive. Despite their 2-5 record, they will face Ridgefield Park in the first round, but a win this weekend at home at the Oval might change things considerably.