Maroon Raiders turn up the heat as season tips off

Photoo by Jim Hague The Nutley High School boys’ basketball team features a host of talented seniors who were eager to institute a new defensive philosophy. Kneeling, from l., are Devin Merritt, Geoffrey Bevere and Devin White. Back row, from l., are Julian Chiarieri, Billy Montgomery, Antonio Olivo and head coach Bob Harbison.
Photoo by Jim Hague
The Nutley High School boys’ basketball team features a host of talented seniors who were eager to institute a new defensive philosophy. Kneeling, from l., are Devin Merritt, Geoffrey Bevere and Devin White. Back row, from l., are Julian Chiarieri, Billy Montgomery, Antonio Olivo and head coach Bob Harbison.

Veteran Nutley High School boys’ basketball head coach Bob Harbison knew that he had to make a dramatic change with his program.

“I’ve always tried to tinker around with things, trying to make them better,” said Harbison, who coaches both basketball and baseball at Nutley for the last decade. “I felt that the way we were playing, I was holding them back a bit. I was trying to get them to play basketball instead of taking advantage of our athleticism.” So the first thing Harbison did was bring in Bill Mullins as an assistant. Mullins had two different stints as being the head coach at Kearny and was also once the head girls’ basketball coach at Queen of Peace.

“Billy Mullins came in and he helped a lot with our defense,” Harbison said. “We decided that we’re going to press from the opening tip. We’re going to run and jump and trap. We decided to go with what they feel like defensively and what they can learn defensively.”

So the Maroon Raiders went from being a slow paced squad to one that plays with high energy on super high octane.

“Once you get these kids to use their athleticism, then everything else is gravy,” Harbison said. “Basketball is not a chess match. It’s a gut check. If you hustle and play hard, good things should happen. I took the whole mental part of the game out and made it more physical.”

The Maroon Raiders’ new approach is still a work in progress.

“I told them that they shouldn’t be afraid to play that way,” Harbison said. “We’re still learning the defensive philosophy. But we’re all happy now because we’re 1-0.”

The Maroon Raiders won their season opener last Friday night, defeating Christ the King of Newark, 53-48, displaying a nice scoring balance in the process.

“It’s all good,” Harbison said. “The seniors are really taking over the leadership role a little more than I thought they would. They’ve stepped it up a little and it’s nice to see.”

Senior Devin White is the team’s starting point guard. The 5-foot-9 White, who was an offensive lineman on the successful Maroon Raider football team in the fall that went to the second round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III playoffs, is a returning starter.

“I have a lot of faith in him,” Harbison said of White, who scored eight points and dished off for six assists in the season opening win. “I had a little talk with Devin before the season. I told him that I had to make sure he didn’t lose the basketball this season. He couldn’t turn it over. He had to give it to the guys on our team who can score. I really needed him and he’s come through.”

Another key returnee is 6-foot senior guard Geoffrey Bevere, who scored 10 points in the win Friday.

“Geoff can definitely shoot it,” Harbison said. “He’s probably our most solid player. He is doing a good job, both offensively and defensively. He’s also become more of a vocal player, getting everyone involved.”

A third guard is freshman Marty Higgins. The 5-foot-10 Higgins earned a spot in the starting lineup after he drained five 3-pointers in a scrimmage against Montclair Kimberley Academy last week.

“He can put points up,” Harbison said of Higgins. “He’s not afraid to go after it. I’m really relying on him to put the ball in the basket right away because I know he can.”

Higgins tallied 10 points in the win over Christ the King, which became a full member of the Super Essex Conference last year.

Sophomore Matt Schettino is another key contributor. The 5-foot-11 Schettino had eight points Friday. Notice the incredible balance in scoring.

“Matt is an athletic kid who plays hard,” Harbison said. “He runs well, jumps well. He’s a slasher going to the basket. He can make the open jumper and has a nose for the rim.”

Senior Billy Montgomery is the team’s main inside threat. At 6-foot-2, Montgomery was never a center before this season.

“But he was willing to give it a try because he’s grown and gotten a lot stronger,” Harbison said of Montgomery, who led the team with 11 points Friday night. “He understands the game very well.”

Montgomery comes from a good athletic family. His older sister Grace was The Observer Female Athlete of the Year two years ago. She currently throws the javelin for Rowan University’s track team.

Devin Merritt, a 5-foot-7 senior and another member of the state playoff football team, is perhaps the team’s top defensive player.

“He’s very athletic and runs the floor very well,” Harbison said.

Senior Antonio Olivo is a 6-foot-4 center off the bench.

“He’s our best off the ball defender,” Harbison said. “He anticipates a lot when we press and gets a lot of steals that way.”

Senior Giancarlo Padilla is another player who will see time up front. The 6-foot-1 Padilla rebounds well and plays solid defense.

“He’s another good athlete and another reason why we made the changes we did,” Harbison said.

Sophomore Elmer Zamora, a 6-foot-3 center, is another capable and big body down low.

The Maroon Raiders were set to face Caldwell in their second regular season game Tuesday, then will take part in the Charlie Dolan Christmas Tournament at Kearny High School after Christmas. The Maroon Raiders will face Dickinson of Jersey City in the opening round of the Dolan Tourney that will feature both boys’ and girls’ teams.

Needless to say, it’s a good time to be around the Maroon Raider program.

“The kids are excited,” Harbison said. “They can’t wait to get out there and get going. We’re playing hard and have a lot of guys contributing, which makes things fun. And it is fun. Nutley basketball is having fun. Make a note of it later in the season.

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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”