By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
The first part of the 2012 high school football season had not gone well for the Maroon Raiders of Nutley High School. They uncharacteristically had lost three of their first four games, including a horrifying nightmare 61-0 loss to Montclair three weeks ago.
Before the Maroon Raiders faced Livingston last Friday night, first-year head coach Tom Basile told his team that there was a huge difference between having a 2-3 record compared to a 1-4 mark.
“I told them that the one game would be a big change,” Basile said. “If we won, we were one game away from being .500 and if we lost, we would have to struggle to get back to .500.”
More importantly, if the Maroon Raiders lost for a third straight time, the 1-4 record would have meant playing the rest of the season with nothing more than pride on the line – a devastating thought for a program that had made four consecutive appearances in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III state playoffs.
Junior running back/safety Joe Iannini didn’t want to hear anything about the state playoff streak.
“Even if we were 1-4, we were going to play to win,” Iannini said. “We were going to try to win every game to see if we could make the playoffs. You never know.”
Although he’s only a junior, Iannini has taken on a role of being a leader among the Maroon Raiders, considering he’s one of only a handful of players who saw action a year ago.
“He’s one of the guys we look to,” Basile said of Iannini.
“I have to be one who shows the younger guys the right way to play,” Iannini said. “I think I am embracing that role. I’m not much of a yeller, but I try to motivate by the way I play.”
It also helps to motivate the rest of the Maroon Raiders that Iannini isn’t one of the biggest players around. Iannini stands all of 5-foot-5 and weighs around 160 pounds.
“He is a little guy and he does take a serious pounding,” Basile said. “But he puts his head down and keeps moving forward. He’s pretty resilient despite his size.”
Basile believes that Iannini’s size – or lack thereof – is actually a benefit at times.
“When he’s going good behind the big blockers in front of him, I don’t think you can see him,” Basile said. “He gets behind the two linemen pulling out and the defense really can’t see him. He finds a little crack and his speed is deceptive. He can cut on a dime and has a third level, the breakaway speed.”
Iannini admits that he’s hard to spot among the big boys upfront.
“I follow their blocks and just go as hard as I can,” Iannini said. “It is hard to see me. It’s a good idea to give me the ball. I like that.”
As the fourth quarter began Friday night, the Maroon Raiders were staring at the rest of their season. They trailed Livingston, 9-8. A loss would have more than likely sealed their fate as a playoff outsider.
“We just had to find some life and dig deep,” Basile said. “I just had a feeling going into the fourth quarter that we would find a way.”
That way was to give the ball to the Maroon Raiders’ resident little big man Iannini.
“We have another back in John Medici and we rotate those two,” Basile said. “But Joe happened to be the one we called upon and he made some nice runs.”
Iannini carried the ball 14 times for 114 yards and two touchdowns, leading Nutley to the crucial 29-9 victory, allowing the Maroon Raiders to keep the rest of the season’s hopes alive and improve to 2-3.
For his efforts, Iannini has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the last week.
Basile also credited Iannini’s work on the defensive end.
“He came up big, making a couple of tackles for losses and two sacks,” Basile said. “He had a great all-around game for us.”
Iannini has never used his size as an excuse or a deterrent, even though others have tried to label him.
“If I looked at it as an obstacle, I never would be able to play at all,” Iannini said. “I’ve always heard that I was too small to play, that I wasn’t big enough, that I wasn’t fast enough. I never let it bother me. I’ve used it as a motivation, because I know I can play. I take pride in it.”
Iannini is a very diverse young man. He’s an excellent student, among the top students in Nutley’s junior class, the owner of an impressive 4.6 grade point average.
“I take academics more seriously than football,” said Iannini, who also participates in track and field in the spring. “I try to do the best I can in everything.”
Iannini is also a member of the school’s band ensemble, playing the trombone.
“I find it to be a lot of fun,” Iannini said. “I would say I’m pretty good at it. But I’m better running with the football.”
Basile likes the total package.
“He has a great personality,” Basile said. “He has a dry sense of humor and likes to keep everyone loose and happy. He’s very well liked. He also handles the stuff about being small. He makes jokes about it. I can relate to it, because I’m not big either. The kid is very self motivated and realizes that smaller kids are usually the underdog. He’s a prime example of how Nutley kids just don’t quit.”
Iannini doesn’t know where he would like to go for college and what field he’d like to pursue when he gets there. He has another year to ponder that situation.
“I have no idea yet,” Iannini said. “I definitely take pride in my academics.” His favorite class?
“My sports and marketing class,” Iannini said. “I love talking about sports. It’s the most comfortable thing for me to do.”
As well as making big plays. Not bad for a little guy.