NA’s DeGrace proves that hard work does pay off

The losses simply kept piling up for the North Arlington High School boys’ basketball team.

Five setbacks became eight and nine became 12 and then 13 turned into 16. One loss after another without a single win. No team anywhere wants to go 0-16.

“Honestly, it has been the toughest season I’ve ever been a part of,” said Vikings senior guard Nick DeGrace. “I’ve been playing since sixth grade and I was always on a winning team. But now, it’s my senior year and I’m 0-16? It was awful. Day in and day out, I was trying to stay confident. It’s hard to stay focused when you’re losing all the time.”

DeGrace couldn’t believe what was happening.

“North Arlington is a school that is used to having success,” DeGrace said. “It was hard going into school and having people come up to you and say, ‘Hey, when are you going to win a game?’ I tried hard not to fall apart.”

According to North Arlington head coach Marcello D’Andrea, who is in his first full year as the head coach of the Vikings, the positive process between coach and player began during the summer months.

“I would go to the middle school every morning and told the kids that they could come and shoot,” D’Andrea said. “I told Nick that he could come meet me up there and he could work on his game. To his credit, he was there every single day. The majority of the time, it was just Nick alone. We would shoot and shoot and much to his credit, he worked hard every day. He took advantage of those workouts.”

So when the 2017-18 season began in December, DeGrace was ready to make it a senior year to remember. There was only that one major problem _ the losing.

Last Tuesday, the winless Vikings were preparing to face Wood-Ridge and DeGrace believed that that was finally going to be the day to end the losing streak.

“I felt really confident going into the game,” DeGrace said. “My confidence was really high. I knew that Wood-Ridge was struggling too and we were playing at home, so we had a chance. We always competed well in our gym. We played Wood-Ridge close the first time we played them (an 81-62 loss Jan. 19 at Wood-Ridge), so we definitely felt we could get the win.”

Before the game, North Arlington head baseball coach Paul Marcantuono approached DeGrace with a prediction.

“He said to me, ‘I got a feeling you’re going to score 40 tonight,’” DeGrace said. “I honestly said to him, ‘Can you be a little more realistic?’ I would have settled for 20 and a win. That’s all I wanted.”

DeGrace’s career best was 30 points earlier in the season, so reaching 40 was a little bit of a stretch. Marcantuono just felt it and put the idea in DeGrace’s head.

“Even through warm-ups, I just had the mentality that it was going to be my night,” DeGrace said. “I was just going to let the game come to me.”

DeGrace’s pre-game ritual usually includes listening to music through his headphones. DeGrace is a big rap fan, so he had a little Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole going for him.

As the game started, DeGrace wasn’t super hot from the floor.

“I usually get going by making threes [3-point shots], but I missed the first three I took,” DeGrace said. “I had a few steals that led to layups and that got me going.”

DeGrace had 10 points in the first quarter and tallied 16 by halftime.

“In the third quarter, I started hitting my mid-range jump shots,” DeGrace said. “In the fourth quarter, I just went nuts. The game was close, so I knew that if I got going offensively, we had a chance to win.”
DeGrace made three consecutive 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and sealed off his night to remember with four straight free throws that sealed the Vikings’ 76-68 win. The streak was over. And DeGrace finished with an astounding 40 points.

“It felt like we had just won a championship,” DeGrace said. “It was amazing. That’s how excited I was. I was pumped that we got a win. I knew I had a breakout game, but I didn’t expect 40. It was definitely a good feeling. It was good for our team, because we were struggling to get that first win.”

Although the Vikings couldn’t continue the winning ways with their other two games last week against Hasbrouck Heights and Paterson Charter, DeGrace continued his torrid scoring, tossing in 33 against Hasbrouck Heights and 19 against Paterson Charter.

And for his efforts, DeGrace has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.

D’Andrea said that he was happy for DeGrace to enjoy a little success and a scoring splurge.

“I wanted him to take good shots and that’s what he’s doing,” D’Andrea said. “He’s getting better looks because he’s taking better shots. Any senior wants to go out with a bang and that’s what he’s doing. Nick has grown and matured. He’s gotten better as a player because he put the work in.”

There’s another aspect to DeGrace’s game that has shown remarkable improvement this season _ and that’s his overall demeanor. In the past, DeGrace would express himself in a negative manner when things didn’t exactly go his way. The pouting and demonstrative actions were detrimental to DeGrace and the Vikings. It overshadowed his obvious talent.

“He’s curtailed his attitude a lot,” D’Andrea said. “I wanted him to be able to take a leadership role this year and he’s worked hard. He’s really progressed as a person and as a player. I told him if he worked hard, things would fall into place. It’s been a trying year for all of us, but Nick has worked hard, He’s a hard-nosed kid who has worked through things. He’s done everything I’ve asked of him. He’s now seeing the fruits of his labor.

Added D’Andrea, “He has a strong passion for basketball. There was the willingness to learn this year and he put in a lot of time during the offseason. I did gain a better appreciation for him.”

D’Andrea believes that DeGrace can play college basketball at the right school, but for now, DeGrace might want to go to a trade school to learn how to be a carpenter.

“My Dad (John) is a plumber, so I might go for my carpentry certification,” DeGrace said. “And then we could work together. But playing in college is not completely out of the question right now.”

The Vikings have a handful of games left, so DeGrace wants to make the most of them.

“I know that I’ll never get a chance to play basketball ever again,” DeGrace said. “I want to make it memorable.”
Last week certainly created a few memories. DeGrace wants to acquire a few more.
If we could just get a couple more wins,” DeGrace said. “That’s all I can ask for.”


North Arlington senior guard Nick DeGrace. Photo by Jim Hague

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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.”