Nutley wins NJSIAA North 2, Group III title as No. 13 seed

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

Pardon Sara Grueter if she’s not familiar with the popular and inspiring movie “Hoosiers.”

One just assumes that everyone and their mother has seen the Gene Hackman flick, about an underdog basketball team from a small town in Indiana going on to miraculously win the state championship.

Grueter, the Nutley High School senior, is one of the perhaps 11 people in America that hasn’t seen the 1986 classic about Norman Dale, Jimmy Chitwood, assistant coach Shooter, diminutive Ollie and the Hickory basketball team.

All’s forgiven with Grueter, because she didn’t need to see the movie. She just happened to live it.

Grueter and her Maroon Raider teammates defied the odds last week when the No. 13-seeded squad traveled once again to western New Jersey and knocked off a higher seeded team on their home floor.

Led by the sensational junior forward Blair Watson, who scored 29 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, the Maroon Raiders did the unthinkable, defeating Voorhees, 57-53, last Monday night to capture the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III championship.

The Maroon Raiders, the lowest seeded girls’ basketball team to win a state sectional title in 20 years, became the first Nutley squad to win a state championship since 1976.

That’s almost 40 years since a Nutley girls’ basketball team had a chance to hang a banner on the gym walls. Grueter, who added 18 points in the sectional title game, will hold onto that memory for a lifetime.

“If my kids go here, they can look up at the wall and say that I had a part of that,” Grueter said. “That banner will be there forever and I was a part of that team. It’s really a speechless feeling. It’s so hard to put it into words. No one believed that we could go this far. I’m just so glad to be a part of the experience.”

Try this on for size. Just a little over a month ago, the Maroon Raiders were 7-12 and appeared headed to miss out on the postseason altogether.

“We barely made the playoffs in the first place,” Grueter said. “I couldn’t even imagine about winning the whole thing.”

Being the 13th seed meant that the Maroon Raiders had to load up the bus and play every game on the road. So it meant traveling to places like West Morris and Mendham in western Morris County and even Orange before heading to the remote spot called Glen Gardner in Hunterdon County.

“We knew we were going to be on the road and playing in some hostile environments,” said Nutley head coach Larry Mitschow. “It’s just not expected to happen.”

But the Maroon Raiders climbed aboard the shoulders of Watson, who should have secured her spot as an All- State player with her playoff explosion. Watson, only a junior, but already committed to the University of Maryland, was just sensational in the state playoffs, averaging close to 30 points per game.

“She’s not one of the best players in the state,” Mitschow said of Watson. “She’s one of the best in the country. Maryland is one of the best women’s basketball programs in the country. They’re not recruiting players unless they are great.”

Mitschow was still trying to process the idea that this team was indeed a state champion.

“It’s beyond our wildest dreams,” Mitschow said. “We had so many injuries and illnesses that we had to cancel our JV (junior varsity) team this year. At times, we had to practice with just seven or eight girls. We had to have our assistant coaches practice. We had to be creative with our practices.”

Mitschow truly believed that his team could be competitive come playoff time.

“When we sat down and tried to construct our schedule, we knew that there was a chance we would be under .500 come playoff time,” Mitschow said. “We play in one of the toughest leagues (the Super Essex Conference) in the state. So if we got in, we knew that we would have a lower seed. The No. 13 seed wasn’t too much of a shock. But being a low seed and winning? That’s just not expected. It doesn’t happen. That’s why this hasn’t even sunk in yet. They’ve definitely outplayed expectations.”

That’s why the loss to Old Tappan in the overall Group III semifinals two days later really didn’t sting that much. No one could take away the state trophy and the banner that will come with it or quite possibly the rings that will come later on.

“We finally accomplished our goals,” said senior Carly Anderson, who can now begin to focus on being a pitcher on the great Nutley softball team. “I have so much pride in my team. It was very exciting to be a part of this. It was a great feeling.”

Grueter said that she loved playing with Watson.

“I can’t even explain what it’s like to get her the ball and watch her go,” Grueter said. “Just giving her an assist is a great feeling. Looking back, I can say that I was part of her career, having the ball go through my hands to hers. It’s just amazing.”

That’s Watson’s take on the whole situation as well.

“It’s honestly amazing,” Watson said. “I’m really speechless. I didn’t expect this. I couldn’t be more proud of my team. In my heart, I knew that we had a chance if we got there. All the time we spent on the bus, taking those long drives, really brought us together. We also had an unbelievable fan base that followed us to those games. It was insane how they came all the way out there. I think everyone in Nutley wanted to see how far we could go.”

If the Maroon Raiders were a recreation of the Hickory team from “Hoosiers,” then Watson was clearly the Raiders’ version of star Jimmy Chitwood.

Mitschow said that Anderson was the one who served as the calming figure.

“She looked at me during the game when we were losing and said, ‘Coach, don’t worry, we got this,’” Mitschow said of Anderson. “She made me calm down quickly.”

Mitschow said that he had nothing but pride for his team and their miraculous run.

“The kids who stuck this out and made it through the tough times,” Mitschow said. “It’s a testament to them. I tried not to tell them that they achieved more than I believed, but deep down, they did. It’s something we’re all going to remember for a very long time.”

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