Face Montclair in tourney title game Sunday at Bears & Eagles Riverfront
By Jim Hague
After the Nutley High School baseball team shut out Cedar Grove last week to advance to the Greater Newark Tournament semifinals, Maroon Raiders head coach Bob Harbison didn’t want to focus too much on taking on the state’s No. 1 team, Seton Hall Prep, in the semifinals.
“We lost to them, 5-4, at their place earlier in the year,” Harbison said. “They scored two in the bottom of the sixth to beat us. We were right there with them. We knew we could play with them.”
So Harbison had a little talk with his team before facing the 18-1 Pirates at Doc Goeltz Field in Verona on Saturday morning.
“We had to get past that Seton Hall mystique,” Harbison said. “We couldn’t get caught up in that No. 1 ranking. We couldn’t worry about that. We just had to go out and play. I told them to be aggressive at the plate, to hit the ball and hit it hard. If we did that, we could take the game over. I absolutely thought we could win the game.”
Sure enough, Harbison’s words hit home, because the Maroon Raiders jumped out to three runs in the first inning and rode the incredible pitching of junior Kevin Garcia en route to an impressive 9-1 win over the former top team in all of New Jersey.
The win was the seventh straight for the Maroon Raiders, who improved to 13-7 overall. The win enabled the Maroon Raiders to advance to the GNT title game against Montclair Sunday at Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium in Newark, with first pitch slated for 5:30 p.m.
It marks the first time the Maroon Raiders will play for the GNT title since 2009, when they lost to Livingston in the title game. Nutley last won the tourney in 2004, when they defeated Seton Hall Prep.
Garcia was masterful, pitching a five-hitter into the seventh inning, striking out five and walking two. It was the second straight solid pitching outing the Maroon Raiders received in the GNT. Joe Feraco pitched a shutout against Cedar Grove in the quarterfinals last Wednesday.
The Maroon Raiders gave Garcia all the runs he would need in the first inning, when sophomore catcher Austin Kunz lined a two-run single and Phil Condito scored a run on alert base running.
The rest was all Garcia.
“We got our three runs and the rest was up to Garcia,” Harbison said. “Garcia wasn’t great that day the first time we played Seton Hall. But this time, he threw blanks. He couldn’t be any better than he was. He was lights out. He’s our guy. That’s how we’re going to go. But we’re getting very good pitching lately. Feraco is a groundball pitcher and the kids make plays behind him. It’s working out well.”
It’s a remarkable turnaround for a program that struggled mightily a year ago, winning just 11 games.
“We were a mess last year,” Harbison admitted.
Now, the returning Maroon Raiders are a year older and more experienced and the younger ones, four sophomores who play in the starting lineup, are no longer wet behind the ears.
“I tell you what,” Harbison said. “I thought we had a good team. The players were good. The scrimmages we had were good. I liked the way the kids handled themselves through adversity. We have four sophomore starters who are playing well and our seniors are starting to play well now.”
One of the key seniors is shortstop Nick Gariano, who continues to make solid plays in the field.
“The sophomores are good players, but they’re just sophomores,” Harbison said. “We needed players like Gariano to step up and be a leader. He’s made some plays that have been just amazing.”
The Maroon Raiders will face Montclair, which hasn’t reached the GNT finals since 1969 and hasn’t won since 1963. Montclair defeated Millburn, 4-2, in the other semifi – nal Saturday.
It would have been nice for Harbison if Millburn had won, considering that Millburn is coached by Harbison’s college roommate and close friend Brian Chapman.
“I was hoping for that,” said Harbison, who will face Millburn in a regular season game this week.
The Maroon Raiders have games against Bloomfield, Millburn and Belleville scheduled for this week prior to playing for the GNT championship on Sunday.
“The kids were pretty excited about the win,” Harbison said. “But now that we have the win, we have to roll back a little with the excitement, because we have other games to contend with this week.”
Harbison had confidence that his team could beat Seton Hall, but never expected the lopsided final score.
“The game went as a surprise, but not the fact that we won,” Harbison said. “We have been playing well. We’ve won a bunch of games in a row.”
However, to go from an 11-win team to one that has a chance to win the state’s eldest and most prestigious tourney in a span of a year is truly astounding.
“We had no reason to believe we’d be where we’re at,” Harbison said. “Not after last year. To get to the county championship game and get here by beating the No. 1 team in the state, it’s very impressive.
”The Maroon Raiders are one win away from the top spot in Essex County for the first time in eight years. That alone says it all. Beating the top team in the state to get there is truly astounding.