Nutley boys’ basketball: A tale of two seasons

The boys’ high school basketball season didn’t exactly start as planned for the Maroon Raiders of Nutley High School.

There were the five straight losses to begin the season. That steamrolled into 10 losses in the first 12 games.

Could the Maroon Raiders actually be 2-10? With the talented roster they possessed? Something was way wrong there.

“You start to doubt what you’re doing,” veteran head coach Bob Harbison said. “It was hard to recognize the problem. It was just so frustrating.”

It was a team that was packed with seniors. There was good leadership from players like Marty Higgins and Jordan Swann. There was solid interior play from solid athletes like Eli Acosta and Jason Nazaruk. The pieces were all there.

Still, Nutley had a 2-10 record. And teams with records like that tend to fold up shop and play out the string.

“To the kids’ credit, they didn’t pack it in,” Harbison said. “They just started to realize that they might be able to do some things. Two things happened. The schedule got lighter and the kids played harder.”

It was like someone turned on a switch and the Maroon Raiders started to play like they were supposed to be playing.

Higgins, the baseball standout who has already signed on to play baseball at St. John’s University in the fall, scored the 1,000th point of his career early in the season. That took some of the pressure off Higgins and allowed him to enjoy the sport with his father, Marty, Sr., the all-time leading scorer in boys’ basketball at the school, as an assistant coach.

“Marty started knocking down shots,” Harbison said. “We’re a different team when he’s making his shots.”

Higgins has enjoyed 15 straight games of scoring in double figures. Included in that run is a four-game stretch where he scored 25 against Shabazz, 26 against Glen Ridge, 27 against West Orange and 25 in the Essex County Tournament quarterfinals against powerhouse Irvington.

Higgins is now averaging 18.8 points per game on the season and has tallied 1,259 points. He’s not going to challenge Dad for the all-time scoring lead, but getting past 1,300 isn’t too shabby for a baseball player.

“I think he’s in much better shape now than he was to start the year,” Harbison said. “He’s a four-year varsity starter, so he should be able to figure things out a little. He’s hit 78 3-pointers for the season. That’s a lot of 3-pointers. I think the looks are getting easier, but I think his teammates are getting him the ball sooner. I think they’re learning to recognize when Marty is free and getting him the ball. When he’s consistent, he’s hard to stop.”

Another key to the Maroon Raiders’ solid play of late is senior forward Acosta, who has played like a man possessed in the second half of the season. Already committed to play football at Rowan University, Acosta started to establish himself as a dominating force when February kicked in.

Acosta had 20 points against Shabazz and tossed in a career-best 30 points against West Orange. During a six-game span, Acosta averaged 17.8 points and 10 rebounds per game, pushing his seasonal point average to 13.8 points per game.

“Eli was going straight to the rim and getting transition baskets,” Harbison said. “He was also doing a good job getting put-backs on missed shots, getting offensive rebounds and scoring. He’s been the key to the team. He’s the best athlete on the team.”

Another key has been the play of Swann as the point guard.

Swann has only reached double figures in scoring once over the last six games, but that’s fine with Harbison.

“We’re a much better team when he’s doing a better job distributing the ball rather than scoring,” Harbison said. “Swann has become more of a distributor than a scorer. Since his scoring has gone down, we’re playing better.”
Swann is still averaging 10.3 points per game, but Harbison likes the true point guard play from Swann as opposed to the scorer.

Jason Nazaruk, the diminutive senior guard, has also picked up his play of late. The 5-foot-7 Nazaruk had 12 points in a loss to University of Newark.

Junior center Aiden Ozdemir has also been contributing. On a senior dominated team, Ozdemir gives Harbison hope for the future.

“We did have some games early on that we should have won,” Harbison said. “Other kids started to accept their roles and just played harder. Obviously, it was frustrating. But they just played harder. I know that sounds stupid, but that’s what it was. It was tough to handle. We just got better defensively and started putting the ball in the basket.”

But it’s not hard to handle any longer. The Maroon Raiders are perhaps Essex County’s hottest team, having won eight of their last 10 games to get to a more respectable 10-12.

There’s only one problem with that record. The Maroon Raiders failed to qualify for the upcoming NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III playoffs like they always do. If the Maroon Raiders were in the state playoffs, they might have done some damage.

But now, they have games this week against Bloomfield, Morris Hills and Livingston, all on the road. There’s a postponed game against Irvington that could be made up, but that has not been determined as of yet.

So the Maroon Raiders are resigned to playing out the string. It was a season that could have been that just started a little too late.

“I can’t say that this season has not been enjoyable,” Harbison said. “We made a nice little run there. The kids all picked their heads up and started to play better. It is frustrating, because it would have been interesting to see what we could have done in the states.”

“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens wrote it perfectly in “A Tale of Two Cities.” It could be used for the Nutley boys’ basketball team as a tale of two seasons.




Senior forward Eli Acosta has been one of the biggest reasons why the Nutley boys’ basketball team went from being a dismal 2-10 to a more respectable 10-12 this season with four games to go. 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.”