Maroon Raiders look to continue winning ways

The Nutley High School football team won eight games in 2015, capturing their Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division title for the second straight year. The Maroon Raiders also qualified once again for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III playoffs.

As the Maroon Raiders prepare for their 2016 season, there is one glaring absence. Gone is the school’s all-time leading rusher Craig Merkle, gone on to play college football at Wagner.

“You can’t replace a player like Craig,” said Tom Basile, who begins his fourth season as the Maroon Raiders’ head coach. “A player like that comes along once, maybe twice in a lifetime. But what we can do is get a bunch of guys in a group effort that can perhaps match what Craig gave us. We can maybe get the same out of the group.”

Basile said that the Maroon Raiders will miss Merkle and the rest of the Class of 2015, some 20 members of last year’s team in all.

“We’re going to find it tough to move on with a lot of those great seniors,” Basile said. “A lot of those guys were two-way starters for us. We took a big hit in terms of graduation.”

The Maroon Raiders also have other obstacles to face this season.

“We have put in a new offense and a new defense,” Basile said. “We’re in a new conference with a new schedule. Every team on our schedule made the playoffs last year. It means that every day is a challenge. Our team is very different from last year. We might not have the player to make you say, ‘Wow!’, but we have a bunch of nice players who are getting better every day.”

Basile believes this team could be as successful as last year’s group.

“If the sum of the parts reaches the talent, then we have a good shot,” Basile said.

The Maroon Raiders have two quarterbacks to work with, namely junior Frank DeMaio (5-10, 165) and sophomore Josh O’Neill (5-11, 180), as they transition into becoming a spread Pistol type offense.

“Both kids do different things well,” Basile said. “Frank is a roll-and-play action type quarterback while Josh drops back and throws with a strong arm. They both have been excellent so far.”

The running backs are senior Matt Roser (5-8, 165) and junior Nick Mainiero (5-6, 155).

“Matt is our main guy,” Basile said of Roser, who gained 500 yards as Merkle’s understudy last year. “Nick can also play the slot as a receiver.”

The top receiver is senior R.J. Ferrarelli (6-3, 190).

“He’s our big threat,” Basile said. “He runs great routes and is a good target. He has good hands and a lot of toughness after he makes a catch. He’s a hungry player.”

Senior Steven Clausen (5-7, 155) and junior Nick Saporito (5-10, 170) are the other receivers.

Senior Justin Bivona (6-0, 195) is the tight end. Bivona is a good old fashioned football player, the kind who would play without pads and a helmet if allowed.

The offensive line is relatively young, but senior tackle Nick Lovato (6-3, 245) and senior guard Mark Charles (5-10, 195) return.

Junior Luis Abreu (6-3, 290) is at the other tackle slot and senior Hunter Lechthaler (6-3, 245) is the other guard, with junior Anthony Alberti (5-11, 250) at center.

“We’re asking a lot of our centers with the new offense,” said Basile of his centers, as now every snap will be in shotgun formation.

Defensively, the Maroon Raiders have shifted to a 3-4 formation.

The defensive ends are Lovato and junior Ryan O’Mara (6-1, 240), with Charles as the nose guard.

The outside linebackers are Bivona, who played there last year, and junior Sam Abreu (5-9, 185 and no relation to teammate Luis).

The inside linebackers are senior Sam Coppola (5-11, 230) and promising sophomore Johnny Luberto (6-1, 185).

Mainiero and junior Wayne Wittmann (6-0, 170) are the cornerbacks with DeMaio and Ferrarelli at the safeties.

The Maroon Raiders open up against West Essex on Sept. 9. It’s the same West Essex team that knocked the Maroon Raiders out of the state playoffs, 28-7, last year.

Still, Basile feels good about his team.

“The kids work hard every day, trying to reach their potential,” Basile said. “That’s all you can ask for. If they keep getting better, then we keep working at it.”

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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.”