When the high school baseball season began, veteran Nutley High School baseball coach Bob Harbison really didn’t know what kind of team he had.
Harbison knew that the Maroon Raiders were talented, but he also knew that they were relatively young.
There were some bumps along the way, some tough losses, but Harbison’s group grew as the season progressed.
“We were down 4-0 early to Columbia in the quarterfinals, but managed to battle back and win, 8-6,” Harbison said.
Last Saturday, the young Maroon Raiders found themselves in a tough predicament, facing state-ranked Seton Hall Prep in the semifinals of the Greater Newark Tournament. Seton Hall had only won the last five GNT championships in a row, totally dominating the long-existing tourney that is for Essex County supremacy.
And as it turned out, the Raiders managed to collect only one hit in the game against the mighty Pirates.
But that one hit was enough, as somehow, someway, the Maroon Raiders came away with a 3-2 victory, advancing to the GNT title game against Livingston at Doc Goeltz Field in Verona at noon.
The Maroon Raiders will be seeking their first GNT championship since 2004, when former Observer Athlete of the Year Steve Armstrong pitched the Raiders to the title at Bears and Eagles Riverfront Stadium.
Since then, Nutley has advanced to the GNT championship game three times, the last being in 2012.
Harbison knew that the Maroon Raiders had a chance against mighty Seton Hall.
“We played them twice before,” Harbison said. “We lost to them, 2-1, and beat them at home, so I knew that we had a shot. I didn’t know they had won it five straight years. When I read that, I was a little surprised. I thought if we played well, we had a good shot to win.”
The Maroon Raiders managed to score three runs with just one hit, scoring twice in the second inning and making those runs stand up. All three of Nutley’s runs came on errors.
In the first inning, Pete Lopez reached on a dropped pop-up and came around to score when Marty Higgins’ ground ball went under the first baseman’s glove for an error.
After Seton Hall tied the game at 1-1, the Raiders took the lead for good in the top of the second inning.
With two out, Wayne Wittman walked, Josh O’Neill was hit by a pitch and Lopez walked to load the bases.
Higgins stepped up with the game already on the line.
“Marty hit the ball deep into the hole at shortstop,” Harbison said. “The shortstop tried to get the force at second base, but overthrew second and Wittman and O’Neill came around to score on the error.”
Higgins has been in the middle of many key rallies this season. The junior has enjoyed a sensational season, batting .432 with four homers and 23 RBI. He is headed to St. John’s to play baseball next year.
Last week, Higgins had three hits and two RBI in a game against Memorial of West New Yoprk, had three hits and two RBI in the win over Columbia in the GNT quarters and had two RBI in a win against a strong Montville club.
“He’s been outstanding,” Harbison said. “His best asset is his defense at shortstop.”
Higgins has also been a godsend as the Maroon Raiders’ best relief pitcher, posting a 3-0 record with a 1.84 earned run average.
But Saturday, the Maroon Raiders’ best reliever was sophomore lefty Trevor Santos _ just like he was in the win over Columbia.
“I brought in Trevor with the game on the line against Columbia and he got strikeout, strikeout to end the game,” Harbison said. “That’s what he does. Trevor just delivers.”
Sure enough, Harbison needed the young lefty again.
He called upon Santos to pitch in the second inning and he responded with five scoreless innings, striking out six, allowing just three hits and walking one. During one stretch, Santos retired 11 of 12 Seton Hall batters to protect the one run lead.
With the tying run at third in the bottom of the seventh inning, Santos responded once again with a strikeout to seal the victory.
“His role has just exploded lately with his pitching,” Harbison said. “He’s helped us tremendously.”
Santos’ pitching was necessary Saturday, because Seton Hall ace Nick Maldonado retired the last 15 batters he faced. Without Santos’ heroics, the Maroon Raiders might have been in serious trouble. The sophomore’s record improved to 4-1 on the season with the huge win Saturday.
Seton Hall had won its last 22 games in the GNT, with the last loss coming at the hands of Nutley in the 2012 semifinals.
The Maroon Raiders now face Livingston, a tough opponent as well.
“They beat us twice already this season,” Harbison said. “We know that it’s tough to beat a team three times. They’re a good solid team. It’s going to be a tall order.”
Livingston advanced to the final with a 1-0 win over Millburn in the semifinals. If Millburn had advanced to the title game against Nutley, it would have been an interesting finale, considering that Millburn head coach Brian Chapman and Harbison were college teammates together at Fairleigh Dickinson in the 1980s.
Needless to say, it has been a fun ride for the Maroon Raiders, now 16-6 on the season.
“We’re excited,” Harbison said. “This team is fun to coach. I didn’t think we’d be knocking the wall down this year. We’re taking advantage of things and playing hard. We fall behind, keep fighting back and play hard. It seems to be working. We’re going to pause a little now and try to figure out what we can do Saturday.”
It should be an interesting afternoon, especially with history on the line.
Sophomore lefty Trevor Santos has become a godsend for the Nutley baseball team, coming in relief to earn a save against Columbia in the quarterfinals of the Greater Newark Tournament, then earning the win in relief last Saturday against top-seeded Seton Hall Prep, putting Nutley in the GNT championship game this weekend against Livingston. Photo by Jim Hague
Junior shortstop/pitcher Marty Higgins has been nothing short of sensational for the Nutley Maroon Raiders, hitting .432 with four homers and 23 RBI at the plate and pitching to a 3-0 record with a 1.84 ERA on the mound. Photo by Jim Hague