OBSERVER TRI-ATHLETES OF THE WEEK — Nutley’s close-knit linebacker corps downright stingy against Millburn

Mitch Iaccarino, Nick Polewka and Alex French have been football teammates since they were in fifth grade. More often than not, the trio of Nutley High School seniors has been side-by-side-by-side, lining up as linebackers for the Maroon Raiders.

Knowing full well that this crazy pandemic-caused season would be the final time that they would have the chance to play together – maybe even play football at all – the close friends wanted to make sure that they made their final go-round memorable.

“I think we take a lot of pride in what we do defensively,” Iaccarino said. “We all get along really well. We all pull for each other. It’s perfect.”

“We’re a close-knit bunch of guys,” French said. “We depend on each other. If one sees something, then the other picks the others up.”

“I think we take each game as a challenge to shut the opponents down,” Polewka said. “I think our camaraderie is good, our connections are good.”

Before the Maroon Raiders took on Millburn last Friday night, Nutley linebackers coach Jeff Martin issued the trio of Maroon Raider linebackers a challenge.

“He said that we shouldn’t give up a single yard rushing,” Polewka said.

That’s a tough task to ask any high school unit to muster. Not allowing a single yard?

“We believed that we could do it,” Polewka said.

“We liked that kind of challenge,” French said.

“We thought that if we all did our jobs that anything was possible,” Iaccarino said.

Well, the Maroon Raiders let up a few more yards than just one. They allowed a total of 16 yards rushing in the Maroon Raiders’ 42-7 win that pushed their record to 3-0 and into a tie with Columbia atop the Freedom White Division of the New Jersey Super Football Conference standings.

The Maroon Raiders’ stellar play at linebacker enabled the trio of close friends to be selected as The Observer Tri-Athletes of the Week for the past week.

Nutley veteran head football coach Steve DiGregorio likes what the three linebackers do for his defense.

“I think our entire defensive unit is doing its job,” DiGregorio said. “We have a very well balanced team right now. Nick is the middle linebacker. He has good experience. He’s a tough kid who sees things well and understands what we’re trying to do. Mitch had an interception and is a good on the blitz. Alex is playing for the first time as a starter and has been getting better each week. I think he’s come into his own. All three are tough, smart football players. All three are great athletes. All three have the ability to run and get to the ball. It’s nice to have three kids like that.”

DiGregorio said that the emphasis of the Maroon Raiders’ defense has been stopping the run. But holding a team to just 16 yards? It’s unheard of.
“It sure makes all the things you do defensively to grow,” DiGregorio said. “The linebackers have to stop both the run and the pass.”

French said that he hopes to attend college on a United States Army ROTC scholarship in the fall. It’s been a lifelong dream of French’s to possibly pursue the military as a career. Iaccarino watched his older brother Michael play for the Maroon Raiders a decade ago and wanted to be like him. He may pursue a business degree at a big school like Rutgers or Penn State. Polewka, who is also a standout wrestler, might want to pursue a career as a firefighter after high school.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Polewka said. “We’re all playing at a top level right now. We’re all improved and we’ve grown into better players together.”

Both Iaccarino and French agree that Polewka is the more emotional player of the bunch.

“Nick is definitely the hype man,” French said. “I’m more of the quiet one. But we all like to bust each other’s chops. We like to make fun of each other. It’s no greater feeling than to stand next to my friends on the field, guys I’ve been close teammates with since fifth grade. I’m very grateful for this opportunity.”

While the game against neighboring rival Belleville has been postponed from this Friday due to COVID-19 concerns – chances are that the game will be moved to Thanksgiving morning at the Nutley Oval – the Maroon Raiders will now face Teaneck this weekend.

Nothing would be better than to have these linebackers go out as champions, considering all they’ve been through – from DiGregorio’s battle with cancer to the COVID-19 crisis to the challenges of even having a season. Right now, Nutley is 3-0 and a good part of that credit belongs to the buddies at backer.




Nutley senior linebacker Nick Polewka. Photo by Jim Hague


Nutley senior linebacker Mitch Iaccarino. Photo by Jim Hague


Nutley senior linebacker Alex French. Photo courtesy of Alex French




Learn more about the writer ...

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.”