Nutley lacrosse team keeps on fighting despite the losses

The Nutley High School boys’ lacrosse team’s record dropped to 0-9 Saturday in the rain at the Nutley Oval with an 8-1 loss to Westwood.

But the Maroon Raiders’ record is no indication of how hard the team is working.

Nor is it a barometer of the Maroon Raiders’ roster, which is packed with inexperience and youth.

“I knew it was going to be a total rebuild when I was asked to come back,” said veteran Nutley head coach Rich Noonan. “It was a no-brainer for me. But I didn’t know that there were only seven kids in the program.”

Noonan was the father of the Nutley lacrosse program back in 1999. He remained in place until 2012, when illness (a battle with Lyme disease) forced him to step aside.

“I was out of coaching for about three years, then I was an assistant coach at a couple of different schools,” Noonan said. “Joe Piro (the Nutley athletic director) asked me to come back, so I did.”

Piro knew that Noonan was his man.

“Rich started the program, then retired, and now has come back,” Piro said. “I saw the program was dwindling and saw that there were seven freshmen coming in. I think lacrosse is a growing sport in New Jersey. It’s growing, because it’s not like baseball. You have to do so many things when you play lacrosse. And you need to have a certain skill level.

Added Piro, “If you’re an athlete, it’s a sport you can pick up. Everyone is going to get playing time. It’s a fast game, an aggressive game. It’s good for your foot speed. It’s not a bad sport. So that’s when kids migrate toward lacrosse. It’s unfortunate this year for Rich because his team is so young.”

Noonan didn’t realize how tough it would be.

“It has been very challenging,” Noonan said. “We have seven freshmen who are starting. Do you know the difference between a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old in terms of size and strength? It’s a tremendous difference.”

But Noonan can see a change in his young team.

“From where we started to where we are now is like night and day,” Noonan said. “We’ve improved so much. Considering these kids had to learn a whole new offensive system and a whole new defensive system. There’s a lot of learning going on. For me, I don’t look at the record. I look at how we’re improving. That’s how I will gauge the success of the season.”

Freshman Johnny Matrona is the team’s goalkeeper. It has to be the toughest position in all of sports. A lacrosse goalie stands there with very little protection and has to stop that rock hard rubber ball coming at them after it is launched by a long stick with a pouch. That’s asking a lot.

“He is fearless,” Noonan said. “From where he started to where he is now has been fantastic. He’s a great kid who works his tail off.”

Matrona made 20 saves Saturday against Westwood.

Senior Max Malnati leads the defense.

“He really has been fantastic,” Noonan said. “He’s provided great leadership and goes all out all the time.”

Freshman Dante Contella is another defenseman.

“I think all of our freshmen came in nervous as to whether they could compete,” Noonan said. “Dante is quietly becoming a leader for us.”

Sophomore Anthony Ferrara is “a very quick defender who is great on ground balls,” according to Noonan. “He’s great on clearing the ball.”

Senior middie Sean Bartely never played lacrosse before this year, but he’s one of several first-year seniors on the squad. So Noonan is dealing with first-year freshmen and first-year seniors? Talk about a hand you can’t win.

Freshman Robert Harbison is another middie. His name may sound very familiar, because his father, Bob, is the Nutley varsity basketball and baseball coach. Imagine that. The father coaches baseball, but the son and namesake chooses lacrosse.

Sophomore Christopher Pesci is a midfielder.

“He’s our face-off guy and is a goal scorer,” Noonan said.

Freshman Domenic Contella (the cousin of Dante) is another midfielder.

“He’s like the quarterback of the midfielders,” Noonan said.

First-year seniors Alex DiCrosta and Alex Juarez are also in the midfield, along with senior Jack Slicklen and a trio of talented freshmen Ryan Turano, Michael Nocerino and Dylan Hoo.

The attack features junior Nick Angelo and Sean Devine, who scored a goal last year. Sam Minera is another freshman among the attack players.

Needless to say, Noonan has to wait for this team to develop a little. With seven freshmen starting? There’s only one word for Noonan to use. Patience.

“We have to be patient,” Noonan said. “The hardest thing for the kids to learn to be patient. They want to go out every single game and win. We never have to question how hard they’re playing.”

So it’s hard for the Maroon Raiders to sit and take their lumps.

“We know that they want success in the W and L column,” Noonan said. “To think of where we were and to where we are now it’s amazing. They’ve learned so much more lacrosse. Now it’s about how much lacrosse they understand.”

It’s not easy when the Maroon Raiders are expected to battle with some of the state’s elite teams like Fair Lawn, Oratory Prep, Newark Academy, Livingston and Verona.

“Our schedule is pretty tough,” Noonan said. “We are facing great programs that are very well coached.”
The Maroon Raiders have a solid program once again and a great coach in Noonan, the father of the program. Now, they just need to get some lacrosse players. It may take some time.


The Nutley High School lacrosse team warms up recently before a match against Morris Hills. Photos courtesy of Rich Noonan

The Nutley High School lacrosse team battles Morris Hills in a recent match at the Nutley Oval. Photos courtesy of Rich Noonan

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer