First league championship for cross country program in 32 years
By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Before the current cross country season began, Nutley head coach Gerald Ryan believed he had the makings of a special team.
“I had an inkling that if we stayed healthy and if we could stumble across one or two freshmen who would become pieces to the puzzle, then we could contend for a league championship,” Ryan said.
Well, that’s exactly what happened last week, when the Maroon Raiders won the Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division championship at Branch Brook Park in Newark.
The Maroon Raiders won by nine points over runner-up West Essex with Glen Ridge third.
It marked the first time that Nutley had captured a league championship in boys’ cross country since 1982, when the Maroon Raiders won the old NNJIL crown.
Ryan, a proud Nutley alum, was 10 years old the last time Nutley won a league championship.
“I was in fourth grade,” Ryan said. “It’s been a while. It’s really great for the kids. The sense of determination grows every day in these kids.”
Leading the way is junior Luke Michels, who won the overall individual title in 17:12.
“Luke pulls everyone along together,” Ryan said. “He has a disciplined work ethic. He’s always pushing himself and wants to be able to pull the rest along.”
Michels believed that the Maroon Raiders would be successful at the league meet.
“I really thought we could do this,” Michels said. “We prepared all summer for this and we just went all out. We’re all one big unit. We have pasta parties together all the time. We feel connected to each other and we’re willing to help each other out.”
“Luke understands the team concept,” Ryan said. “He’s not concerned about himself as much as he is with the others on the team. He was in a tough spot, being out there all by himself.”
Michels won the race by a full 47 seconds. “When you’re running by yourself, it’s hard to push yourself,” Ryan said. “At the mile mark, he was already in the lead by 15-to-20 seconds.
There was no one there with him. At that point, you can’t even hear footsteps. But he’s running well.”
Ryan believes that Michels should be in the hunt for an NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III title at Greystone Park in Morris Plans in a few weeks.
“He’s run Greystone already (at the Greystone Invitational last Friday) and finished fifth overall in 16:37,” Ryan said. “So he should be in the mix there.”
“It’s been a real confidence booster,” Michels said. “I’m looking forward to the sectionals and hopefully moving on to the Groups (at Holmdel Park). That’s my goal and I feel like I can do it.”
Sophomore Eric Vogler was next for the Maroon Raiders at the SEC meet. Vogler finished fifth overall in 18:08.
“He ran track for us last spring, but didn’t run cross country last year,” Ryan said. “His attitude has really impressed me. He’s a hard worker who is willing to do anything for the team. He really has emerged as a runner and has been very consistent.”
Freshman Jimmy Quinn was next for the Maroon Raiders, placing 13th overall in 18:41.
“I went to high school with his dad, Jim,” Ryan said of the younger Quinn. “I’ve known Jimmy growing up, but I definitely never expected what we’re getting from him. He’s been a pleasant surprise. I think he feeds off Luke a little and pushes himself to be like Luke.”
Senior Steve La was right behind Quinn, finishing in 14th place in 18:47.
“He’s always working,” Ryan said of La. “I think that’s the MO of the entire team. Steve has been around the program for a few years and is a great kid. I’m glad to see that the hard work he’s put into the sport is beginning to pay off.”
Junior Michael Conca was next in line, finishing 15th , right behind teammates Quinn and La.
“The Conca family name has been running for Nutley since the 1970s,” Ryan said. “Michael just falls in line with the rest of his family. Mike started late this year, but has worked himself back into running shape and is now making a contribution.”
Junior Anthony Castronova was 26th overall.
“He’s the vocal leader on the team,” Ryan said. “He has a great attitude and gives 100% every race.”
Freshman Gerard Dimayuga was 28th overall.
“He’s been a big surprise,” Ryan said. “From the first day of practice, he’s shown a lot. He learned how to push himself and has matured fast. He’s making big contributions to the program.”
Ryan is soaking up the team’s success. He’s been the head coach for eight years and coaching track in the district for 18 years.
“This definitely gives me a little sense of accomplishment,” Ryan said. “It’s something that can never be taken away. Records come and go, but there will be a banner up in the rafters. It will be on T-shirts and jackets that we won the league. It’s great for the kids and a great accomplishment for our program. Nutley is not one of the better known spots for runners.”
Michels is also pleased that the team will be forever remembered.
“It’s really amazing being put next to the 1982 team,” Michels said. “It’s really awesome.”
It’s also pretty awesome to make a little history in the process.