The high school football season wasn’t exactly going well for the Maroon Raiders of Nutley High School.
The Maroon Raiders lost heartbreaking games to West Essex (27-22) and Pascack Valley (35-31), as well as a hard 49-21 setback against neighboring Bloomfield. In any case, the second tenure of head coach Steve DiGregorio didn’t exactly start as planned.
“It was not part of the plan,” DiGregorio said. “We had the game against West Essex and blew it with four seconds left. The Pascack Valley game, we had a chance to put the game away with six minutes left and didn’t do it. We played some good football at times, but we didn’t have anything to show for it. We just didn’t win.”
So as the Maroon Raiders were preparing to face undefeated Irvington, the No. 8-ranked team in New Jersey, DiGregorio tried to get his troubled team to bounce back.
“We had to trust and believe,” DiGregorio said. “We had a great week of practice getting ready. It’s a credit to the kids. We did not feel sorry for ourselves and we weren’t down. As disappointing as the loss to Pascack Valley was, we had to make steps forward. We had to make sure that we didn’t make mistakes.
Added DiGregorio, “Here’s what I told them. I said that we had to identify the five plays that could have made us 2-1 instead of 0-3. And we had to correct the mistakes that we made. I knew that we could get things done. I know coaches always say things, but I don’t say something unless I truly believe it.”
The Maroon Raiders all came together in order to face Irvington.
“The offensive line dramatically improved,” DiGregorio said. “We had five different kids who scored touchdowns. We had three touchdown passes.”
And almost incredibly, the Maroon Raiders scored 34 straight points en route to a 34-12 victory over Irvington that gave DiGregorio his first win as Nutley head coach after five years.
“Right now, we’re 1-0,” DiGregorio said. “That’s the way we’re looking at it. The other two losses were heartbreaking, but they’re over. Now we’re moving forward.”
There were several heroes for the Maroon Raiders. Let’s start with junior quarterback Josh O’Neill, who completed 12-of-24 passes for 182 yards and three touchdowns and scored another TD on a run.
“Josh has done well since the opening game,” DiGregorio said. “He’s been throwing the ball nicely. He’s very poised back there and he’s been giving his receivers a chance to catch the ball. He’s done really well. He’s just a terrific athlete, both running and throwing.”
Another key performer is senior running back Nick Mainiero, who carried the ball 30 times for 122 yards and scored a touchdown.
“He runs so hard every carry,” DiGregorio said. “He’s so tough. He’s been playing well.”
Vinnie Russo had two catches for 86 yards and a touchdown. He also made 11 tackles on defense and had one of his team’s three interceptions.
Eli Acosta had three catches and a touchdown. Jon Luberto had three receptions and an interception on defense.
“Jon missed the Pascack Valley game with an injury,” DiGregorio said. “He made two big-time catches in this game and made about five tackles. He was a strong safety, but we moved him to weak side linebacker and it worked well. We were looking to retool out team a little. Jon helped us on both sides of the ball.”
Ryan O’Mara also caught a touchdown pass from O’Neill. Sam Abreu had eight tackles. It was truly a team effort for a team in desperation mode trying to get its first victory.
“We really have not had a bad practice,” DiGregorio said. “The kids show up every day and they work hard. They come to practice with the same positive attitude. I think that’s a testament to our coaching staff.”
DiGregorio was quick to point out that the Maroon Raiders lost their first two games in the first season of DiGregorio’s tenure in 2004, before defeating Paramus in Week 3. And the Maroon Raiders’ opponent this weekend? Paramus, of course.
“What the victory does is validates all the hard work the kids put in,” DiGregorio said. “They play hard together and trust each other. We have to keep on building here. We haven’t arrived as a team yet. We have to keep moving forward and we will.”
Nutley head football coach Steve DiGregorio had to endure three straight losses to begin his second tenure as head coach of the Maroon Raiders, before Nutley soundly defeated state-ranked Irvington, 34-12, on Saturday. Photo by Jim Hague
Junior quarterback Josh O’Neill had a great day in the win over Irvington, throwing for 182 yards and three touchdowns while scoring another on the ground. Photo by Jim Hague