By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
All Nico Mercadante wanted to do was make a name for himself.
But the versatile Nutley High School senior was having a tough time achieving that goal.
Well, when the time came for Mercadante to receive his warm-up hoodie for the baseball team this spring, his last name was misspelled as “Mercandante.”
“I didn’t even notice it at first,” said Mercadante, who has played the outfield, third base and now first base over the last three years for the Maroon Raiders. “You don’t know how many times I’ve had my name misspelled over the years. I’ve almost become used to it.”
Nutley head baseball coach Bob Harbison has no problem spelling Mercadante’s last name – and putting that name in the Maroon Raiders’ lineup every game.
“I can always find a spot for him,” Harbison said. “He’s been a three-year starter for us. He started as an outfielder, but last year, we needed a third baseman, so we just put him there. This year, we needed a first baseman, so we moved him there. He’s become a very good first baseman and he also has the best arm on the team.”
Mercadante likes having the ability to play multiple positions on the field.
“I really love the game and I understand the different points of it,” Mercadante said. “I can play all over the place and I try to do that. I play for the New Jersey Athletics during the summer and I have played every position for that team. I’ve even played catcher. I love it. I love playing every position. It gives me a better look from the different positions.”
Mercadante is the quintessential team player.
“I want to do whatever it takes to help my team win,” Mercadante said.
Last Wednesday, the Maroon Raiders traveled to Governor Livingston in Berkeley Heights for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III quarterfinals. The Maroon Raiders faced a Governor Livingston squad that began the 2014 season ranked among the state’s top 20 teams and were seeded second in the state sectionals.
Mercadante was in the Nutley lineup, batting seventh and playing first base.
“To be honest, I was batting fourth or fifth in the beginning of the year, but I like the seven slot better,” Mercadante said. “It takes a lot of stress off me, because pitchers don’t expect anything coming out of the No. 7 hitter.”
Harbison does expect things from Mercadante.
“He’s very dangerous,” Harbison said. “When he puts his bat to the ball, generally good things happen.”
In Mercadante’s second at-bat, he struck out, but not without a fight.
“He must have fouled off seven pitches,” Harbison said. “It was a good at-bat. He was fighting it, facing a very good pitcher. Afterwards, I told Nico that it was a great at-bat and told him to keep his head up. He did a good job remaining positive.”
“The first two previous atbats, the pitcher was pitching me outside,” Mercadante said. “So the next time, I was set up looking outside. I fouled off one pitch, but then he went outside again and I caught one.”
With runners on first and second in the top of the sixth inning, Mercadante went with the outside pitch and belted it over the fence for a threerun homer, helping to give the Maroon Raiders the 6-2 upset victory and the right to advance to the state sectional semifinals this week against the winner of West Essex and Morristown.
It was clearly the biggest single hit that Nutley baseball has enjoyed in a few years.
For his efforts, Mercadante has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Mercadante certainly felt good helping to contribute to such a huge victory.
“It felt amazing,” Mercadante said. “The ball came off the bat great and just kept going. I’m pretty proud of myself. I’m just glad to help out.”
Harbison was a little surprised with the way Mercadante’s drive carried.
“He hit the ball to right center and it was pretty deep, so we had the runners tagging up,” Harbison said. “But I could see that the centerfielder wasn’t going to make a play on it and it just left the park. He is a power hitter and a strong kid. It was a huge hit.”
Haribson said that Mercadante is more of a “streaky hitter.” Mercadante is batting .306 with two doubles, two triples and now two home runs – none better than the shot that lifted the Maroon Raiders to the sectional semifinals.
“We needed everyone against that good team,” Harbison said. “We needed our No. 7 hitter to come up big and he did.”
Harbison likes Mercadante’s approach to the game.
“He’s a good kid,” Harbison said. “He’s pretty quiet, but he works very hard. He’s serious about baseball and plays all the time. I’ll always find a spot for a kid like him, because he’s that dangerous. He has that kind of talent.”
But Mercadante knows his baseball career will be coming to an end shortly. He plans on attending William Paterson University, but will not play baseball there.
“I am going to try to get into their dental program,” Mercadante said. “I want to go to dental school and become a dentist, so I have to dedicate myself to my education and getting into a good dental school.”
So Mercadante made a name for himself before he moved on – and will be forever remembered in Nutley baseball folklore.
“It means a lot to me,” Mercadante said. “It’s been building up to this. In the beginning of the season, I was doing pretty well, but honestly, I got too comfortable and I went 0-for-3 in a couple of games. I just had to get my head on straight and focus. Maybe this home run will start me back up again.”
If it does, then Nico Mercadante picked the right time to make that name for himself, with or without the extra n in his last name.