Nutley could actually be better after dream season

Maryland-bound Watson leads Maroon Raiders

Photo by Jim Hague The Nutley girls’ basketball team will rely heavily on the talents of senior Blair Watson (l.), one of the top players in the entire state who has already signed her letter of intent with Maryland. Head coach Larry Mitschow (c.) wishes he had Emily Holden (r.) this season, but Holden will miss the year with a hamstring injury.
Photo by Jim Hague
The Nutley girls’ basketball team will rely heavily on the talents of senior Blair Watson (l.), one of the top players in the entire state who has already signed her letter of intent with Maryland. Head coach Larry Mitschow (c.) wishes he had Emily Holden (r.) this season, but Holden will miss the year with a hamstring injury.

A year ago, the Nutley High School girls’ basketball team enjoyed a miraculous dream season, one that is only found in Hollywood scripts and fairytales.

The Maroon Raiders went from being a 7-12 struggling team to the No. 13 seed in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III playoffs to winning 10 of their last 11 games and capturing the state sectional crown, winning all four games on the road.

It was the first time that Nutley won a state sectional basketball title in almost 40 years, with the last one coming in 1976.

Now, it appears as if people think that dream run can happen again, mainly because All- State superstar Blair Watson is back for another year.

“During the summer, I had higher expectations,” said Nutley head coach Larry Mitschow. “We’re basically starting over. We have three freshmen and a sophomore that haven’t played with Blair. So it’s harder to predict what we can do. They’re making freshman mistakes right now. I think they’ll be better by the end of the season. We will be stronger then. I don’t know if we will win more games (the Maroon Raiders ended with 17 wins last year), but we could be a better team. The potential is there.”

Of course, everything involving the girls’ basketball program at Nutley right now centers around Watson. The 6-foot-1 Watson, who has already signed her national letter of intent to attend the University of Maryland next fall, has picked up where she left off last year – and then some.

Clearly, Watson is one of the best players in New Jersey, if not the very best.

“By now, everyone is aware of what Blair’s capable of,” Mitschow said. “It’s not a surprise anymore. She’s obviously well known. She has been great. Her work ethic in practice is better. She’s working well and helping the younger kids.”

Watson begins play this week just 16 points shy of the school’s all-time scoring record, set by Kim Di- Vincenzo (the daughter of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo), who scored 1,602 points in her career that ended in 1999.

Watson has a chance to also break the all-time school scoring record, boys or girls, set by Marty Higgins, of 1,855 points.

If Watson continues on the scoring pace she’s had after four games, she’ll do it easily.

Watson is averaging 25 points per game, with a high total of 29 points reached twice. She also made six 3-pointers in a one-point loss to Ridgewood in the Westwood Holiday Tournament.

Mitschow recognizes that Watson is more relaxed and at ease these days.

“She’s talking with the younger kids,” Mitschow said. “She’s talking with the coaches and she never did that before. She’s been nothing but phenomenal for us.”

Sophomore Sydney Kunz has also been a solid contributor. Kunz scored 14 points in a huge early win over Montclair, helping the Maroon Raiders to have a ranking among the state’s top 20 teams at that point.

“Sydney is a great rebounder for us,” Mitschow said of the 5-foot-7 Kunz, whose brother Austin was a fine baseball player for Nutley a few years ago and is currently a catcher at Alvernia University in Pennsylvania. “She’s scoring about eight points per game and has been all over the place for us.”

Freshman Courtney Wilde is a 5-foot-5 point guard who has also chipped in with some scoring.

“She likes to go to the basket, but she can also shoot the three (point shot),” Mitschow said. “She’s a good offensive player who is learning more every day.”

Wilde scored 12 points in games against Demarest and Ridgewood in the Westwood tourney.

Another freshman is Rebecca Granata, a 5-foot-7 swing player.

“She’s a work in progress,” Mitschow said. “She needs to get her confidence back. She’s developing that a little now.”

Junior Jen Callaghan, the soccer standout who started on last year’s state sectional champion, is also back.

“She’s our best defender,” Mitschow said. “She was a role player last year, but she’s stepped it up this year. She really is a great defender.”

Freshman Alaina Feaster is a 5-foot-10 center who is also learning on the fly.

“Her post presence is essential,” said Mitschow, especially when Watson is roaming around on the outside. “We have to work on her scoring a little bit. She gets chances with offensive rebound put backs that she needs to make.”

Mitschow is basically playing with a six-player rotation right now, owning a 3-2 record, but a 2-0 mark in the Super Essex Conference-American Division, in a league that features such tough teams as Montclair, Shabazz, East Orange and Bloomfield Tech.

Mitschow would have had some help from softball pitching ace Emily Holden, but the standout hurler injured a hamstring during the pre-season and is lost for the season. Mitschow is confident that the injury will not restrict Holden from playing softball.

Despite not having a deep roster, Mitschow is confident that the Maroon Raiders will be a state playoff contender again this season.

“I like the personality of the kids,” Mitschow said. “I think we just have to get the kids comfortable playing with Blair in terms of getting her the ball, realizing where she is on the floor. But the potential is definitely there. I can’t predict that we can win it again, but we can definitely contend. Let’s see what happens. I don’t know if we can go as far as we did last year and win, but this team will be a stronger and better team.”

One thing is for sure: the Maroon Raiders won’t be a No. 13 seed this year and Watson will be recognized as one of the state’s best players every single time she walks into a gym.

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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.”