By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
The Nutley High School football team was 3-7 in 2012, the first year of new coach Tom Basile’s regime.
Now, with a full year under their belts and a veteran group returning, the Maroon Raiders look to be much improved as the 2013 season kicks off this weekend against neighboring rival Belleville.
“I think we’re very much improved,” said Basile, a long-time assistant to former head coach Steve DiGregorio who took over last year after DiGregorio stepped down. “Knowing that we have practically everyone back is a big help. The offense is looking very smooth. Last year, we started a lot of inexperienced kids and we went through a lot of ups and downs. We had so many question marks last year. These kids have gone through a lot of practices and drills and we believe that it was all a learning experience that hopefully will pay off on the field this year. And I think it will.”
Basile has a very modest goal as the season begins. “We want competitiveness,” Basile said. “Obviously, we want to win, but where we’re going to show a lot of improvement is in the competitive nature. We’re not going to get our doors blown off every game. We’re going to be in games in the fourth quarter and hopefully win a few. We’re going to be much better off. Here we go.”
Leading the returnees is senior quarterback Mark Carnevale (5-11, 180), who started at quarterback last season.
“He’s emerged from the group,” Basile said. “He throws the ball real well and has become more of a leader. He has the familiarity of what we’re trying to do. We want to speed the game up this year and he has a full understanding of that and the game.”
Senior Joe Iannini (5-6, 175) returns for his final year. Iannini had a fine junior year, including a huge game against Livingston in a 29-9 win, earning Observer Athlete of the Week honors.
“He’s a very tough kid,” Basile said. “Pound for pound, he’s our toughest player. And the kid can make plays.”
Senior Mike Foster (5-8, 165) and junior Joe Iorio (5-10, 180) will also get considerable playing time at halfback, with sophomore Craig Merkle (6-0, 195), the next in the line of Merkle brothers who played for Nutley, also in the mix.
The Maroon Raiders are fortunate to return both starting receivers from last year in seniors Ryan McGlone (6-0, 180) and John Conca (6-0, 170).
Senior Gabriel Tortora (6-1, 180) also returns at tight end. Tortora is a fine blocker and a sure-handed pass receiver.
If there is a little bit of a concern, it’s in the offensive line, where Basile has had to do some mixing and matching in the preseason to find the right combination.
Senior Randy Rauco (6-2, 245) is the lone holdover from last year and he’s just been moved from guard to center.
Senior Chris Palma (6-1, 255) and sophomore Devin White (5-10, 195) are the tackles, with senior Mike Buckley (5-10, 190) and junior Jesse Defuna (5-8, 245) at guard.
The Raiders utilize a 4-3 alignment on defense, with Buckley and Tortora at defensive end and Rauco and Palma at defensive tackle.
Iorio is a standout at middle linebacker, flanked by the promising sophomores Merkle and White and junior Frank Malanga (5-9, 165).
They might not be the biggest linebacker corps in the Super Essex Conference, but they will be among the toughest.
Senior Vin Sasso (5-7, 155), another undersized player who plays bigger than his size, is at cornerback, along with Foster. Iannini, another tough customer on the defensive side, is at safety, along with junior Pete Russo (5-11, 175). Russo also serves as the team’s backup at quarterback.
After the Raiders face off with the Buccaneers this week at the Nutley Oval, they have Newark Central, so it’s essential that the Raiders start off strong.
Because then the Raiders face the big boys, tackling Montclair, Seton Hall Prep, Livingston and West Orange in succession.
“It’s important for us to be in position to win games,” Basile said. “We have to be competitive. If we’re competitive into the fourth quarter, then we’ll let our chips fall where they may. We’ve done a lot of work and preparation to make sure that we’ve improved into the fourth quarter and make each game a close game.”
If that happens, then it’s a positive first start.