When the current high school wrestling season began, the Nutley High School wrestling squad found itself in quite a messy jam.
The Maroon Raiders started off with losses in their first five matches. Two weeks into the new season, they owned a 1-7 record.
For a program that had made its mark over the last decade, qualifying virtually every year for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III team sectionals, the 1-7 record was somewhat a shock to the system.
“We kept stressing the fact that we had to get better,” said Mike DiPiano, in his second year taking over the program from his brother Frank. “We had to get better every day, then things could get better. We never really changed what we were doing. Practices didn’t change. We didn’t pay much attention to the record. We knew that we had a lot of season left.”
DiPiano, who is also the head girls’ soccer coach in the fall and assistant softball coach in the spring, likened the Maroon Raiders’ situation on the mat to a poker game.
“You can only play with the cards that you’re dealt with,” DiPiano said. “We had to make the hand we were dealt a winning hand. These were things we all continued to do each day.”
So the Maroon Raiders went back to the grind and didn’t pay attention to the horrific record. They didn’t panic and worry about qualifying for the state sectionals. Whatever happened, happened.
“Then, we got on this little run and won 12 out of 14 matches,” DiPiano said.
Suddenly, things looked a lot better. It helped that the NJSIAA extended each sectional bracket this season to include eight teams instead of just six. The Maroon Raiders knew that they could move up to the No. 8 seed if everything played into their hands.
“When they first released the seedings, we were the No. 8 seed two weeks ago,” DiPiano said. “But then we moved up to the sixth seed. We then beat West Essex and moved up some more.”
The Maroon Raiders’ strength of schedule also helped.
“We wrestled 14 teams that would compete in the state sectionals,” DiPiano said.
When the NJSIAA finally released the seeding for the sectional, the Maroon Raiders had somehow moved up all the way to the No. 5 seed and a first round matchup with No. 4 Rahway last Monday night.
The Maroon Raiders came away with a 31-30 victory to advance to the state sectional semifinals and a showdown with state-ranked power Cranford.
That match didn’t turn out as well as planned, but the Maroon Raiders could rest in the knowledge that they turned around a totally moribund and deceased situation at 0-5 and then 1-7 and transformed themselves into a state sectional semifinalist.
That’s not too shabby for a team that was ravaged by injury even before the season began, losing two key wrestlers to season-ending injuries and illnesses even before they took to the mats in early December.
“To be 0-5 and then 1-7 and stay the course like we did and make the state playoffs, well, I’m really proud of them,” DiPiano said. “We knew we were in a tough sectional, with Cranford as the best public school team in the state. We jumped on the chance we were given and got a shot. We said, ‘Let’s see what we can do against them.’ And we gave it a shot. We were just outclassed by Cranford.”
The Maroon Raiders won three matches last Wednesday night against Cranford, which lost in the overall Group III semifinals to Delsea on Sunday.
Sophomore Dominic Cofone continued his fine season with a 6-4 win over Patrick Kalnins at 106 pounds.
“He won more than 20 matches last year as a freshman and he now has 20 wins this season,” DiPiano said of Cofone. “He’s having a great year. His goal is to make it to Atlantic City (and the NJSIAA state championships). If he keeps wrestling the way he has been, he has a shot.”
Senior Joey DiPasquale won via a major decision, an 11-2 score over A.J. Bencivenga at 152 pounds. DiPasquale owns a 21-4 record this season.
Senior Justin Bivona, who exploded onto the scene with a dramatic run in the districts and regions last year, continued his fine campaign with a 4-3 win over Dylan Budnik at 195 pounds.
“He really has worked his tail off this year,” DiPiano said of Bivonam who now has a 17-7 record this season. “He’s become a very good wrestler for us.”
In the win over Rahway, the Maroon Raiders rallied from an 18-0 deficit, before Frank DiMaio won via pin and turned the entire match around.
“We then won seven matches in a row,” DiPiano said.
Freshman Dan Jennings has been a pleasant surprise, wrestling at a tough weight class (182 pounds) for a rookie.
“He’s gutted out some big wins for us,” DiPiano said.
The Maroon Raiders closed out the regular season last weekend against Pascack Valley and Northern Highlands to get ready for the new-fangled District 10 tournament, which Nutley will host beginning Friday night and continuing with the finals on Saturday.
Among the other teams in the newly organized District 10 tourney include Newark East Side, Columbia of South Orange/Maplewood, Orange, Union City, Verona, Becton/Wallington, West Orange, Wood-Ridge and perennial state power Delbarton.
How the state came up with that pairing is beyond comprehension.
“We have a chance to do well,” DiPiano said. “The goal is to get as many as we can to the Regions.”
The Maroon Raiders will continue to wrestle in Region 3 at West Orange.
The area teams have been shifted all over the state for this year’s District tournaments.
For example, Lyndhurst/North Arlington and Bloomfield have been sent to District 9 in Phillipsburg. That’s no misprint. Those teams have to schlep more than 80 miles just to get to a district tourney.
Belleville, Queen of Peace, Kearny and Rutherford are all in the same district, but it’s District 11 in Morristown. It’s a district that should be dominated by the Golden Griffins. It’s up to Kearny to simply try to compete out there.
The Maroon Raiders will give it a shot at competing in their own home gym. It’s a far cry to what the state of the program was earlier this season.
“It shows that if the kids trust the coaches and trust themselves and trust the process and trust the sport, then good things will happen if you work hard,” DiPiano said.
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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.”