NUTLEY – When the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association started to pair off similar teams for last weekend’s “regional crossover” football game, formerly officially known as the “consolation” game, for grid teams that failed to qualify for the NJSIAA state playoffs, there was some chatter that the NJSIAA would actually pit local rivals Belleville and Nutley against each other.
After all, it was once one of the longest standing rivalries in New Jersey. The two geographical rivals used to face each other every year. For 76 years, Belleville vs. Nutley was one of the fiercest grid rivalries in northern New Jersey.
Most years, from 1984 through 2011, the game was played with a lot of fanfare on Thanksgiving Day, but then schools around the state started to shy away from playing on Turkey Day because it either interfered with state playoff preparation or it extended a losing season by an unnecessary three weeks.
After the 2015 meeting, a totally non-competitive mismatch that saw the Maroon Raiders win by a final score of 62-12, the two schools mutually decided to discontinue the series.
At that time, Belleville was really struggling as a program, trying to find its identity with a revolving door of head football coaches and athletic administrators coming and subsequently going. So it made perfect sense to end the rivalry, even if the football traditionalists were against its demise.
But then came this season and the two teams were not headed toward the state playoffs. It made perfect sense for the state to put the two against each other, basically to drum up some interest in what really amounts to a meaningless football game.
So there was talk last week after the muddled mess of the state playoff pairings were finally determined and Belleville and Nutley were left looking for a final game.
Sure enough, after the smoke cleared last Sunday and the state playoff pairings were figured out, the powers-that-be with the NJSIAA decided it would be a good idea to revive the rivalry and pit the Buccaneers against the Maroon Raiders once again.
So for the 76th time in the rich and storied history of the rivalry, Nutley and Belleville met once again on the gridiron.
Guess what? It wasn’t only a good idea. It was an absolutely marvelous idea.
The game turned out to be highly competitive, a contest that Michael Jackson might have dubbed a thriller.
The final score read Nutley 20, Belleville 13, but in reality, everyone was a winner.
It was a contest that brought back a lot of the alums from the two schools, proudly wearing their respective school colors. Some of the old-timers squeezed their way into their old varsity jackets after dragging them out of the deep corners of the hall closet.
The atmosphere around the Nutley Oval was electric. Fans in the stands ranged in age from eight to 80, some were even younger and yes, some were even older. Both schools had their marching bands playing their hearts out with full force. Belleville’s band entertained perfectly right before kickoff and Nutley’s band was spectacular for the halftime show.
There was a brisk chill in the air and a stiff wind blowing the leaves around to remind you that winter is rapidly approaching and so are the year-end holidays.
This was what high school football is supposed to be all about. Sure, other schools in New Jersey had playoff games to worry about, but this was once again for the Mayor’s Trophy. The trophy itself was brought out of hibernation and was presented to Nutley after the Maroon Raiders held on for the great victory.
Both head coaches had nothing but positive reactions after the game.
“I was overwhelmingly supportive of the game,” said Nutley head coach Steve DiGregorio, who saw his team finish the 2018 season with a 4-6 record. “I grew up with the Belleville-Nutley rivalry. We played them all the time when I was a player and then a coach. I just thought last week that when it was playing out that wouldn’t it be great to revive this rivalry and we did.
Added DiGregorio, “This was pretty big. We probably set a new record for a crowd for a consolation game. This was a heck of a game. It was two teams trying to get better. To me, this is what high school football is all about.”
Belleville head coach Jermain Johnson agreed.
“It was a great atmosphere for a high school football game,” Johnson said. “It was great for both towns. We have to get this back on board.”
Both coaches did their best to teach their players about the history of the rivalry by bringing back former players who participated in the rivalry and understood the importance of the game.
“We told the kids what the game was all about,” Johnson said. “We had Johnny Alvarado and Ralph Citarella come back and tell their stories. Having the alumni come back and teach them about the history meant so much.”
“We had Matt Delmauro (one of the best running backs in Nutley history) come and talk to the kids,” DiGregorio said. “None of our kids ever played in a Belleville-Nutley game before.”
The game also had a special meaning for the Nutley sideline.
Former Nutley assistant coach Donny Klein was tragically killed in a car accident last Tuesday. The 34-year-old Klein was coaching at The College of New Jersey at the time of the accident, but he spent six years as an assistant under DiGregorio during his first stint as head coach.
“We lost a great guy,” said DiGregorio, who had special decals with Klein’s initials DK to be placed on each player’s helmet. “Donny spent six years with me. When I got the news, it crushed me. I couldn’t even talk for the rest of the day. Donny was a great coach for us. He was all Nutley. Our guys didn’t know Donny, but they wanted to play for him. Our assistant Mike Padilla spoke about how important Donny was to us. Donny will live forever in Nutley.”
There was a moment of silence in Klein’s honor before kickoff.
Incredibly, the Maroon Raiders called a flea flicker play early on in honor of Klein. The Maroon Raiders attempted a flanker pass from Eli Acosta to Vinnie Russo, but the pass sailed wide in the Nutley wind.
“This was a play that Donny wanted to have run every year he was here,” DiGregorio said. “He wanted that play in our game plan every game. He would ask every week. We wanted to hit it for Donny. It was open. We just missed it. It was there.”
It didn’t matter. The Maroon Raiders understood the history, recognized the importance of the rivalry and the honor of remembering a fallen member of the family.
“I give these kids all the credit,” DiGregorio said. “They were 1-6 and knew there wasn’t much to play for. So we played the final three games (Snyder, Caldwell and Belleville) and I’m very proud of our kids, especially our seniors. It was a great way for our seniors to go out. It’s a great launching pad for next season.”
Both teams had something else in common – pre-game preparation.
The Buccaneers were treated to a pasta dinner the night before the game. The Maroon Raiders convened at the home of Nutley athletic director Joe Piro for meatballs and pasta the night before, then returned to Piro’s house Saturday morning for breakfast.
And one other thing that’s constant between the two, the sense of pride.
“My kids showed me something today,” Johnson said after the game. “Our kids have been beaten and battered. They could have easily reverted back to what they used to be.”
What the Bucs were last year was a 1-9 team that actually lost a game by 84 points. That team was nowhere to be seen Saturday.
“I’m very proud of the kids, my coaches, the whole program,” Johnson said. “They could have all easily quit and they did not. My coaches have been relentless with these kids, teaching them every single practice, reminding them of what they can’t be.”
So could this be the return of Belleville-Nutley football?
“After a game like this,” DiGregorio said. “How could it not be?”
Nutley running back Matt Chimento (25, center) runs the ball through a host of Belleville tacklers, led by Omarie Whitmore (27, left) and Chris Freid (54, right) during Saturday’s game between the two rivals at the Nutley Oval, won by Nutley 20-13. Photo by Jim Hague
Belleville quarterback Matthew LaTorre (4, center) calls the signals at the line during the Belleville-Nutley football game Saturday at the Nutley Oval. Nutley won the game, 20-13. 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.”