By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Bob Harbison has been coaching the boys’ basketball team at Nutley High School for quite some time now and he’s never had a team as deep and as versatile as the current bunch of Maroon Raiders.
“They’re all going to get a chance to play,” said Harbison, whose team defeated Christ the King of Newark, 47-38, to open the season last Friday night. “Whoever plays well that day is going to play. Whoever does the most will determine who stays in and plays.”
There are as many as 11 Maroon Raiders who will get playing time. There isn’t one player who stands out above the others.
“We’re not a young team,” Harbison said. “They’re all not veterans. They’re really not tested. We really had only two guys who had any real playing time last year. They’re all pretty balanced.”
One of the two who played last year is senior do-everything Pete Russo. The 5-foot- 11 Russo, who is coming off a brilliant football season, averaged only four points per game last year, but Harbison is expecting much more this season.
“He’s just a very good athlete,” Harbison said of Russo, who scored 10 points in the season opener. “He’s probably going to play football in college, but he’s a good basketball player.
He’s much stronger this year and he’s a lot more confident. I’m asking him to do a lot. He has to handle the ball, shoot the ball, cover the other team’s best player.”
Another key player is senior center Sean Rodriguez, who was the Maroon Raiders’ leading scorer Friday with 14 points. The 6-foot-3 Rodriguez is the key to the Maroon Raiders having a successful season.
“He’s making a lot of short shots, but he can get outside and shoot from the (3-point) arch,” Harbison said. “He shoots it well. He’s another athletic kid.”
Senior Eli Mir is a 6-foot forward who didn’t play much last year, but has worked himself into the Maroon Raiders’ rotation this season.
“He’s worked very hard to get this chance,” Harbison said. “He can shoot the ball.”
Junior Will Montgomery, the soccer standout, is another forward. Montgomery, whose older sister Grace was The Observer Co-Female Athlete of the Year last year, is a 5-foot-11 forward.
“He’s a strong kid,” Harbison said of Montgomery. “He can also shoot the ball pretty well from the outside.” Junior Geoff Bevere is a 5-foot-10 guard who made two big 3-pointers coming off the bench Friday. Bevere is a point guard, but can move around if needed.
Senior center C.J. Kaminski is one of the newcomers that Harbison related to.
“I actually cut him (from the team) last year as a junior,” Harbison said. “Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he worked hard to get bigger, faster and stronger. Now he’s just a better player.”
Kaminski made two shots and had a blocked shot coming off the bench Friday night.
“He also had four rebounds early,” Harbison said. “He was able to help us extend the lead.”
Senior Michael Sejias will be a defensive presence when he returns to action after serving a suspension.
“He’s a defensive presence,” Harbison said of the 6-foot-3 Sejias. “He’s strong under the basket and that’s important for us.”
Harbison has also been experimenting putting both Rodriguez and Sejias on the floor together.
Senior Isaak Lindenbaum is a 5-foot-9 guard.
“He shoots pretty well and plays good defense,” Harbison said. “I don’t know how many minutes he’s going to get, but he’s another hard worker looking for a shot.”
That internal competition has been fueling the Maroon Raiders in the early going.
Junior Giancarlo Padilla is a 5-foot-11 forward.
“He’s going to find his way,” Harbison said. “He’s another good athlete.”
Junior Devin White has his chance to play with the varsity as well. The 5-foot-8 White already has made his impact, hitting two big 3-pointers in the fourth quarter of Friday’s win.
“He’s a good ball handler and might be our strongest player with the ball,” Harbison said.
Junior Devin Merritt is another 5-foot-8 guard off the Nutley bench – for now.
“He’s a wonderful kid who shoots it pretty well,” Harbison said.
Merritt’s father, David, is the secondary coach for the New York Giants.
Dante Vocaturo is a 5-foot-10 junior forward.
“He’s a strong defender, very strong on the ball,” Harbison said. Antonio Olivo is a 6-foot-3 center who is a junior as well. “He’s a very solid rebounder,” Harbison said.
“He gets to back up the big guys.”
Needless to say, Harbison has a very deep squad.
“It’s as good of a group as I’ve ever had here,” Harbison said. “There’s not an ego in the group. Every single one of these kids has the potential to play well. I like that about this team. The kids all push each other to make everyone better.”
The Maroon Raiders were set to take on Caldwell before the Christmas break, then will head to the Chatham Christmas Tournament, the Cougar Classic, with host Chatham, Hanover Park and New Providence in the tourney field.
The Maroon Raiders are also a lot more competitive in the Super Essex Conference these days.
“It makes every game winnable,” Harbison said. “We know now that if we play well, we can win. It’s going to be a fun year.”
It’s off to the good start.