Nutley baseball: Young guns coming of age

The Nutley High School baseball team, which suffered through an uncharacteristic losing season in 2017, is making sure there’s no repeat performance this year.

The Maroon Raiders are off to a solid 4-2 start, including solid wins this week over Super Essex Conference foes Newark Academy and Columbia.

Veteran Nutley head coach Bob Harbison didn’t know what to expect from his young roster this season.

“It looked like it was going to be a two-year project,” said Harbison, who also doubles as the school’s boys’ basketball coach. “I thought we would be better than last year, but I didn’t know how much. But there’s no substitute for a year of varsity baseball, which they all received last year.”

Harbison said that the Maroon Raiders were helped tremendously by a trip to Florida a few weeks ago. While many other local teams were keeping busy with snow shoveling, the Maroon Raiders enjoyed the fine weather in the Sunshine State.

“We got six scrimmages in during the four days there,” Harbison said. “I think that’s what got us going.”

Another reason why the Maroon Raiders have done so well in the early going is a deep and talented pitching staff, headed by junior right-hander Josh O’Neill.

“He’s our go-to guy right now,” Harbison said of O’Neill, who fired a one-hit shutout in beating Newark Academy, 7-0, last Wednesday, striking out 12 and walking three. “He’s still finding his way a little. He’s a power pitcher. He throws hard. But he’s effortless out there.”

O’Neill has a 1-1 record with a 1.91 earned run average thus far with 17 strikeouts in 11 innings. The starting quarterback in football, O’Neill has already given a verbal commitment to attend NCAA Division I Stony Brook for baseball when he’s done at Nutley.

Another standout hurler is sophomore right-hander Andrew Budine.

“He mixes it up well,” Harbison said. “He has a fastball, changeup and throws his curve for strikes. We knew he was going to be a good one, but he’s really improved so far and has stepped in as our No. 2 starter.”

Senior righty Dan Caraballo is a flamethrower who impressed when he struck out four batters in relief against perennial state power Seton Hall Prep.

Junior Marty Higgins is the team’s mainstay. Although Higgins makes a solid impression with his glove at shortstop, Higgins has also been a solid pitcher.

“We’re going to use him as efficiently as we can,” said Harbison of Higgins, who also has given a verbal commitment early, making his intentions to attend St. John’s known early. “We will use him as a closer, because he’s so valuable in the field. He throws hard, but he also has a little bit of a knuckleball that he uses.”

Higgins also carries a huge bat for the Maroon Raiders. He had three hits, two runs scored and two RBI in the 11-5 win over Columbia Saturday.

John Luberto is another junior right-hander.

“He pitched a lot for us last year,” Harbison said. “He’s good. He challenges batters. He also throws hard.”

Luberto is also a member of the football team in the fall.

Senior left-hander Wesley Gardner is a relief pitcher.

“He’s the kind of guy who keeps the other team off balanced,” Harbison said.

Junior Kevin Zhang is another relief pitcher. Zhang is a righty.

Sophomore lefty Trevor Santos is known more for his outfield prowess, but he spends time on the mound as well.

“He keeps it down and gets people out,” Harbison said of Santos.

Needless to say, Harbison likes the depth of his staff.

“I like our pitching staff,” Harbison said. “We have enough experienced pitchers who know what to do on the mound.”

The catcher is freshman Lou Rafaelli, who is getting trial by fire behind the plate.

“He’s an athletic kid who is a great receiver,” Harbison said. “He has a bright future if he keeps going.”
The first baseman is sophomore Kevin Hogan, who gained some experience last year as a freshman. Senior Wayne Wittmann is another first sacker.

“He runs well and has a good glove,” Harbison said of Wittman. “He’s hitting the ball well.”
Wittman delivered the game-winning hit against Caldwell in the ninth inning.

Sophomore Justin Lucia is the second baseman. Lucia didn’t play baseball last season due to injury, so he’s learning as he goes along. Lucia is now healthy and improving.

“He’s an athletic kid who runs well,” Harbison said. “He can play a little at third as well.”

O’Neill also sees time at second base.

Higgins is the shortstop, first and foremost.

“His job is to take control of the game,” Harbison said of the talented junior. “He lets me relax; It’s his third year with me, so he knows what to do. People know who he is when we play them.”

Higgins is batting .429 with four RBI in the early going.

Hogan shares time at third with senior Ryan O’Mara.

Santos is the left fielder.

“He’s very good out there,” Harbison said. “He’s our No. 3 hitter. He’s the prototypical baseball player. He’s the kind of kid you want. He carries himself well. He’s really a special kid and a special player.”

Senior Pete Lopez returns to his slot as the starting centerfielder.

“He runs well,” Harbison said. “He gets on base and makes things happen. He’s a good hitter and has a good arm in center.”

Caraballo mans right field. He’s headed to Nicols College in Massachusetts.

“He’s a talented kid,” Harbison said of Caraballo. “He does a lot of things.”

Junior Jose Abreu has arrived from his native Dominican Republic and joined the Maroon Raiders’ program.

“He’s a big kid who can pitch a little,” Harbison said. “If he stays healthy, he’s going to get a chance.”

Junior Connor Genitempo is another key player as the team’s No. 2 backstop.

So Harbison likes the makeup of his team, even if they don’t know it yet.

“We have kids who are ready to go,” Harbison said. “We have to win the games we’re supposed to win. Last year we lost a bunch of those games. If we can pull that off, we’ll have a good year. We have a young roster, but we have a lot of young, good players. They’re also good kids who are fun to be around. They’re setting a good example for everyone.”


The Nutley pitching staff is coming of age. From left are Josh O’Neill, Dan Caraballo, Marty Higgins, head coach Bob Harbison, Andrew Budine, John Luberto and Trevor Santos. 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.”