By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
If you ask Austin Kunz what sport he’s more proficient at, the Nutley High School senior wouldn’t hesitate to answer.
“I like baseball better,” Kunz said. “I think I’m better at it.”
Kunz has been the starting catcher on the Nutley baseball team since he was a freshman. He’s earned a reputation as a slick fielding defensive catcher with a lot of power in his bat. In fact, Kunz is almost certain that he will attend Alvernia College in Pennsylvania in the fall to play baseball.
“He’s a baseball player who just plays basketball,” said Bob Harbison, who happens to be Kunz’s head coach in both sports.
However, Kunz is making his mark this winter as a solid basketball player.
Earlier this season, Kunz scored 31 points in a game against Newark West Side. The 6-foot-3 Kunz earned his spot in the starting lineup this season.
“He works well with what he can do on the floor,” Harbison said. “He has great hands and has a quick release. He is very strong inside and does well down low. He either makes the shot or gets fouled and he’s a very good free throw shooter. He sets a lot of screens, then gets the ball back to make that foul line jumper, but he can also hit the three (point shot).”
Last week, it looked as if Kunz was going to miss some time on the hardwood, because he suffered a sprained ankle.
“He was hobbling around on the bad ankle,” Harbison said.
But Kunz said nothing was going to stop him last Friday night, when the Maroon Raiders faced neighboring rival Belleville.
“I told my teammates that I wanted to score 40,” Kunz said.
However, that bold pregame prediction didn’t look too promising during the warm-ups right prior to the start of the game.
“I was terrible during warm-ups,” Kunz said. “I couldn’t make a shot. I didn’t think I’d have a good game.”
But when the game started, things changed remarkably.
“I made my first couple of shots and I began to feel it,” Kunz said. “It’s the greatest feeling when you know you can’t miss. My teammates just kept giving me the ball. They had so much faith in me and I couldn’t let them down. My teammates just kept getting me the ball.”
“He just was expecting the ball to go in when he was shooting it,” Harbison said.
When the final buzzer sounded, Kunz ended up with a career-high 33 points and the Maroon Raiders earned a 73-56 victory over their archrivals.
“It’s always great to beat Belleville and it’s great to know that I had 33 against them,” Kunz said.
Kunz also had 17 points in a tough 49-41 loss to East Orange in the opening round of the Essex County Tournament Saturday, so in the span of less than 24 hours, Kunz tallied 50 points.
For his efforts, Kunz has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
A very confident Kunz was not shocked at all by his offensive explosion.
“I’m not really surprised at all,” Kunz said. “I’ve always thought that I was pretty good in both sports. I knew I was going to start this year, so I had to play good to earn my starting role.”
Kunz said that he didn’t play much basketball in the off-season to get ready.
“I didn’t play basketball at all until the tryouts,” Kunz said. “I played two games in the fall league and the tryouts and that was it.”
“He just gets the most of what he is,” Harbison said. “He finds himself in good places on the floor to score. Austin has great hands, so he catches everything thrown to him. I don’t know if his baseball skills help there. He scores the quietest 30 points you’ll ever see. When he had the 31 against (Newark) West Side, I said, ‘Really, he had that much?’ Now he gets 33. I think he’s getting a little more satisfied with the way he’s been playing, so that helps.”
However, Harbison is a little surprised with the outburst.
“I would have to say that the numbers he’s been putting up are shocking,” Harbison said. “But if you watch the games and see what he does, then it’s not shocking. It’s at the point now where you’re expecting the ball to go in when he shoots it.”
Harbison likes Kunz’s dedication in both sports.
“He’s a very competitive kid who is very committed to winning,” Harbison said. “He wants to win more than anything. He gets the most of what he is as an athlete.”
Harbison likes coaching Kunz in both sports.
“I think it makes it a lot easier, because you know where he is and you can expect him to be there every day,” Harbison said.
Kunz thinks that his basketball success will also pay off on the diamond come spring.
“I think playing basketball gets me in better shape to play baseball,” Kunz said. “It helps with my foot work behind the plate. Since I’m doing well, it definitely helps with my confidence a lot. I never scored 33 points in a game in my life, so this was the greatest feeling.”
And there was an added bonus.
“And beating Belleville was the best,” Kunz said. “I was really looking forward to the game and I’m glad we won.”
Just wait until the two teams meet up during the baseball season. That also should be fun to watch. Guaranteed that Austin Kunz will be more than ready then as well.