It was a glorious Saturday afternoon at the famed Nutley Oval athletic complex.
The sun was shining brightly. The 82-degree temperature was more like mid-September than mid-August, when the heat is usually stifling and you could cut the air with a butter knife. It was a positive feeling around the busy and active facility that is always filled with Nutley High School athletes — as well as others.
Meaning, it was a perfect day to hold the annual Maroon-White scrimmage, an intrasquad contest pitting friend against friend and teammate up against teammate for a brief stint, followed by a good old-fashioned summer barbecue.
And it was a return to glory for Steve DiGregorio.
Five years ago, DiGregorio left his position as the head coach of the Maroon Raiders because of family obligations. DiGregorio wanted to be closer to his Princeton home, where his sons attended high school and where he once coached at Princeton University.
DiGregorio, a Nutley native and long-time teacher at Nutley High, left Princeton University a little more than decade ago to take over the Maroon Raider program that was indeed struggling and in dire need of some victories.
In his first season at his alma mater, DiGregorio won five games in 2005. A few years later, in 2010, the Maroon Raiders won eight games. They advanced all the way to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III championship game against Morristown in the spanking new MetLife Stadium.
In 2011, Nutley posted a 6-4 record and made another trip to the state playoffs, falling to Parsippany Hills in the first round.
And that was it. DiGregorio had two sons in high school and another who was special needs and in need of special attention. His nine-year stint at Nutley was over _ or so everyone thought.
“I didn’t expect to come back,” DiGregorio said. “I didn’t leave the job the first time because I didn’t like it.”
But DiGregorio got the opportunity to serve as a volunteer assistant at Princeton High, coaching his two sons. And since all three boys are off doing their collegiate thing and with the head coaching job at Nutley opening up when Tom Basile stepped down after five seasons, it was only natural that DiGregorio would want to coach again at the school where he already was entrenched as a teacher.
“It made sense,” DiGregorio said.
So there he was, back on the Nutley Oval, guiding his program through a Maroon-White scrimmage. Steve DiGregorio looked like he was home. He looked like he belonged and like he never left.
He did realize one thing.
“There are some talented guys out there who could play,” DiGregorio said. “The cupboard is not bare. I wish we were a little deeper in some spots, but we have enough guys with good game experience.”
The Maroon Raiders went 3-7 last season, but they did manage to make an appearance with a losing record in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III playoffs, falling to West Essex in the first round. In fact, the Maroon Raiders began and ended the 2016 season against West Essex.
And as a strange twist of fate, guess what team DiGregorio begins his second stint as head man with the Maroon Raiders against? You nailed it. The Maroon Raiders face the Knights of West Essex on Saturday, Sept. 9 at the Nutley Oval.
DiGregorio did watch films of last year’s team and didn’t want to make any judgments off those videos.
“Any time you take over something, you want to go in with an open mind,” DiGregorio said. “I wanted to figure it out all on my own.”
It didn’t take DiGregorio long to learn that he had a stud running back returning in senior Nick Mainiero (5-foot-7, 170 pounds). Mainiero, an Observer Athlete of the Week last season, had two games a year ago where he rushed for more than 200 yards.
“He’s a hard, hard, hard runner,” DiGregorio said. “He has great assets. He sees things that most players don’t. We know we can move the ball with him in the backfield.”
Another solid performer is senior Sam Abreu (5-11, 180).
“He’s another hard runner and a tough kid,” DiGregorio said.
The leader for the starting quarterback slot is junior Josh O’Neill (5-11, 170), who is one of the best all-around athletes in Essex County. O’Neill is also a fine baseball player.
“Josh can both run and throw,” DiGregorio said. “He has a good athletic understanding of the game. We want to find a niche for Josh.”
There’s one aspect that DiGregorio liked about his team from the start.
“They’re highly coachable,” DiGregorio said. “I told them that they needed to be coachable and they’ve been terrific.”
And DiGregorio isn’t busy teaching X’s and O’s.
“I always thought that if you teach a system of football, then you’ll be in good shape,” DiGregorio said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. We have to adapt to the talent that we have. If they can grasp what we’re trying to teach, then we’ll be okay. Once we feel that we’ve learned that part, then we can add a wrinkle here and there. But we have to learn the system first.”
DiGregorio sees signs.
“I think we’re getting better every day,” DiGregorio said. “We’re becoming multi-faceted. We want to make the opponent work hard trying to keep up with us. But everything has to come from the same trunk of the same tree. It comes down to the system of play.”
Three players are battling for time at fullback, namely senior Ryan Loch (6-0, 205), junior John Luberto (6-1, 200) and sophomore Dan Jennings (6-0, 195).
Junior Eli Acosta (6-2, 170) has been impressive at wide receiver along with fellow junior Vincent Russo (6-1, 180).
“They’re both very similar,” DiGregorio said of his receivers. “They both can go up and get it. They’re talented receivers.”
The Maroon Raiders will use two tight ends in seniors Ryan O’Mara (5-11, 210) and John McAloon (5-11, 180).
Senior Luis Abreu (6-2, 265) returns to his spot at tackle along with three others fighting for playing time. Senior Joey D’Alessio (5-11, 200) and sophomores Matt Jaworski (5-10, 230) and Miguel Lopez (6-1, 310) are all in the mix at both tackle and guard.
Senior Justin Luna (6-2, 230) has a lot of experience and will be at guard.
“I like him a lot,” DiGregorio said of Luna.
Senior Anthony Alberti (6-0, 240) is the starter at center, where he played last year.
“It absolutely helps,” DiGregorio said of the experience along the front line.
Defensively, the Maroon Raiders will have a 4-4 formation.
O’Mara, who had a great year last year at defensive end, returns there along with Luna. Abreu and Lopez are defensive tackles along with Alberti and senior Mike Paolello (5-10, 200).
There’s depth in the linebacker corps with Luberto, Russo, Loch, Jennings, Sam Abreu and Dominick Raffaelli all getting in the mix.
Mainiero and senior Wayne Wittman (6-0, 175) are the cornerbacks with Acosta and junior Matt Durham (6-0, 175) at safety.
The optimism is there, just like the radiant conditions at Nutley Oval last Saturday.
“It’s been good jumping back into it,” DiGregorio said of being a head coach again. “I think it was easier to step into it this time than the last time. I’ve been incredibly active the last couple of years with my sons. But this is good because I’m here.”
The Nutley football program is in good hands with former coach Steve DiGregorio returning to his old job as head coach. Front row, from left, are John McAloon, Christian Briganti, Mike Paolello, Derrick Kurtzmann and Joey D’Alessio. Back row, from left, are Ryan O’Mara, Miguel Lopez, Matthew Jaworski, Anthony Alberto, head coach DiGregorio, Justin Luna and Luis Abreu. Photo by Jim Hague