Nutley’s grid team opens with impressive win over Newark West Side

To say that the past year has been filled with tumult and turmoil for Steve DiGregorio would be a gross understatement, when you consider the veteran Nutley High School football coach has been battling a courageous war with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

DiGregorio insists that he never stopped coaching during the time when he underwent surgery and endless hours of chemotherapy treatments, but in a sense, assistant coach J.D. Vick primarily ran the show while DiGregorio convalesced.

So when the Maroon Raiders kicked off the 2020 season Saturday afternoon against Newark West Side, DiGregorio was back on the sidelines, doing what he’s loved doing for the majority of his adult life, namely coaching football.

And lo and behold, DiGregorio’s Maroon Raiders responded with an impressive 31-18 victory at Untermann Field in Newark, making DiGregorio’s remarkable return a victorious one.

“It was certainly nice,” said the veteran Nutley coach, who is in the fourth season of his second go-round as the head coach of the Maroon Raiders.

DiGregorio was the head coach for eight years from 2004 through 2011 and led the Maroon Raiders to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III championship game at MetLife Stadium in 2010.

“It was really special,” DiGregorio said of the win. “A year ago, they were putting all the stuff (chemotherapy) into me and now I’m back on the sidelines. It’s great to be back. Looking back, there never was a doubt in my mind that I’d be back coaching again. The doctors were always so fully supportive of what I wanted to do. So was my wife (Nadia).”

Then, you throw into the mix that there was a coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic that prohibited the Maroon Raiders from any offseason weight training and limited preseason preparation to just two weeks of practice.

“That was certainly a challenge,” DiGregorio said. “But what made it simpler was how much the group endured. The kids did a great job, as did my coaching staff. I believe in all of these guys.”

On Tuesday before the opener Saturday, the skies opened during practice.

“We had a deluge and we didn’t stop,” DiGregorio said. “We had a wonderful week of practice. I think we all benefitted from it.”

DiGregorio has the benefit of having two talented quarterbacks. While senior Anthony Haines (5-foot-11, 185 pounds), a talented three-sport standout with wrestling and baseball in the mix, received some snaps, junior Matthew Harbison (6-1, 200) received most of the playing time.

Harbison completed 6-of-8 passes for 100 yards and three touchdown passes, while he rushed for another score.

“Matt did a good job,” DiGregorio said of the son of the Nutley head basketball and baseball coach Bob Harbison. “He was a tight end last year, but he’s come a long way as a quarterback. He worked as hard as he could in the offseason and did an awful lot to get ready for his first start.”

Senior Johnny Coppola (5-10, 180) is the main running back.

“He runs well within the (tackle) box,” DiGregorio said. “He can make people miss and keeps the ball moving forward.”

Senior Gennaro Longobardi (5-7, 160) is another running back.

“He’s a really tough kid,” DiGregorio said. “We ask him to do a lot of things. He runs, catches passes, lines up in the slot, plays defense, punts and returns kicks.”

The fullback is senior Mitchell Iaccarino (5-11, 190), who caught a touchdown pass from Harbison in the win over West Side.

“He has good hands and is a good blocker,” DiGregorio said.

The Maroon Raiders have a plethora of people who play the receiver position – and DiGregorio is blessed to have all of them.

“If we put someone in the game, we have a lot of confidence in them,” DiGregorio said.

Sophomore Brandon Lucia (5-11, 175), the brother of last year’s quarterback Justin Lucia, caught two touchdown passes from Harbison in Saturday’s win.

Senior Ryan Breihof (6-0, 180), juniors Vincent Miller (5-10, 170), Frank Kokos (6-1, 185), Joe Crocco (5-10, 160) and identical twins Gerard and Vincent DeMaio (5-8, 160) complete the deep Raider receiving corps. Senior John Vandeventer (5-11, 205) is the tight end.

The offensive line has a lot of bulk, led by three-year starter Billy Searle (6-2, 275), who has also made his mark as a fine wrestler in the winter. Searle is a tackle for the Raiders and is getting some feelers from prospective colleges.

“He’s one hell of a football player now,” DiGregorio said of Searle.

Senior Max Martino (6-0, 240) is the other offensive tackle, with senior Jordan DeFalco (6-2, 265) and junior Joseph Alberti (5-9, 205) at guard and senior Jake Walsh (5-11, 185) at center.

“It’s a big asset to have experience along the line,” DiGregorio said. “It’s helping us out, because they’ve been around our terminology.”
Because of the Raiders’ intricate offensive package, DiGregorio asks a lot of his linemen to be athletic as well as big.

“They do all the skills needed,” DiGregorio said.

And during the preseason, DiGregorio was mixing and matching two full offensive lines. That’s depth for you.

The Maroon Raiders use a 4-3 defensive front, with juniors Mike LaTorre (6-1, 210) and Billy Mielnicki (6-1, 210) at defensive end. Searle, DeFalco, Alberti and junior Paul Poplawski (6-2, 225) all see time at defensive tackle.

Iaccarino and senior Alex French (6-0, 200) are the outside linebackers with senior Nick Polewka (6-0, 220) at the middle linebacker slot.

The cornerbacks are Kokos, Coppola, Miller and seniors Jackson Geraghty (6-0, 175) and Justin Zheng (5-8, 170) and the safeties are Longobardi, Lucia and junior Paul Scutti (5-9, 175), who is working his way back after a shoulder injury.

“They’re a bunch of highly coachable kids who pick each other up,” DiGregorio said of his team. “Thank goodness we had experience, because it would have been very difficult with the limited practices. We won the game upfront. They played well along the line. It was a very rewarding win.”

The Maroon Raiders will christen the newly refurbished field at the Nutley Oval Saturday against West Essex at 1 p.m.

“They’re putting the finishing touches on the field now,” DiGregorio said. “It looks tremendous. The Nutley Oval is the centerpiece of town. It’s our showpiece.”

As is the courageous coach, who continues to shine through the tough times.




The Nutley High School football team is utilizing a host of linemen this season. From left are Jake Walsh, John Vanderventer, Jordan DeFalco, Billy Searle, Joseph Alberti and Max Martino. Photo by Jim Hague


Veteran Nutley head football coach Steve DiGregorio (center) is back on the sidelines full-time this season after battling cancer last year. Here’s more linemen with the coach. From left are Paul Poplawski, Billy Mielnicki, Nick Polewka, DiGregorio, Mike LaTorre and Anthony Pinal. 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.”