Nutley clinches SFC Freedom White Division with historic win

Before the 2020 high school football season began, Nutley High School head coach Steve DiGregorio had extremely high hopes.

“I really thought we were going to be a good team,” DiGregorio said. “I thought we had some good experience on the line on both sides. I thought we had running backs that had some experience.”

The returning players agreed.

“I knew we would be a competitive team,” said senior captain Jake Walsh. “We had a lot of experience. We had a lot of good players.”

But having experience and talent isn’t everything.

“We just needed a lot of things that had to go right,” DiGregorio said.

For one was a season. With the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic throwing everything for a loop, the Maroon Raiders simply needed to get on the field. In the case of the Maroon Raiders, it would mean getting on a brand new field, as the Nutley Oval underwent a picturesque overhaul complete with a new FieldTurf surface.

But as the health concerns about the coronavirus eased a bit and state officials allowed high school sports to return to action, it was evident that there would be some provisions if high school football was going to exist in 2020.

The NJSIAA ruled that there would be no state playoff this season and that football teams would be limited to an eight-game schedule to be completed by Thanksgiving weekend.
“This season is so crazy,” DiGregorio said. “I told the kids to treat every game like it’s their last one. That they had to pick each other up and keep playing. We had to believe we were fortunate to keep playing and that we had to take it one game at a time.”

With that in mind, the New Jersey Super Football Conference—Freedom White Division became a goal.

“With nothing else to win, we had to take what we could get,” Walsh said.

“I had a lot of confidence in my teammates,” said junior quarterback Matt Harbison. “If we would go out each game with heart and integrity, then good things would happen for us.”

However, no one in their right mind – with the exception of the head coach – thought that the Maroon Raiders had a legitimate chance of winning a divisional title.

“I honestly didn’t think it was an option,” Harbison said.

“I didn’t think we would be this good,” Walsh said.

It all became a reality last Thursday night, when the Maroon Raiders defeated Columbia, 26-14, to clinch the SFC-Freedom White divisional crown.

It marks the first time since 2015, when the Maroon Raiders won the Liberty Division of the old Super Essex Conference, that Nutley claimed a football championship.

With the win, the Maroon Raiders improved to 5-0 on the season. That alone is remarkable. The divisional title is just the icing on the cake.

And once again, it was a collective effort that carried the Maroon Raiders to the win. Gennaro Longobardi did the majority of work, carrying the ball 25 times for 160 yards. Harbison completed four passes for 99 yards and scored a touchdown rushing. Mitch Mainiero scored touchdowns on runs of 12 and 35 yards. Billy Mielnicki intercepted a pass and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown and also had a clutch reception of 45 yards.

There’s no question that the Maroon Raiders represent the epitome of “team.” Every week, there seems to be another player who steps to the forefront to lead the way.

“We try to get all of the players involved,” DiGregorio said. “For example, we hadn’t thrown the ball to Billy (Mielnicki) all year and he makes that big catch. We have a number of players who can make plays. Of course, it makes the team easier to coach. The ball gets distributed well.”

“We put it all together,” Walsh said. “The defense was outstanding. The offense was great. We don’t need that one guy to carry us. We do it as a team.”

“Our lines stepped up and played well,” Harbison said. “They’re doing an incredible job.”

The victory was also historic, because it marked the 500th win in the history of Nutley football. So the divisional title and the historic milestone all happened on the same day. You can’t make stuff like that up.

“We never really need an incentive to play,” DiGregorio said. “But the kids were told what was on the line. They responded well.”

“Coach D mentioned that it had a chance to be the 500th win,” Harbison said. “We kept that in mind. We had to come out and prove ourselves. We wanted to go out and play for Coach D. We didn’t want to disappoint him.”

DiGregorio is battling cancer for the better part of the last 18 months and that courageous fight doesn’t get lost among the Maroon Raiders.

“When Coach D walks into the room, you know it’s going to be a decent day,” Walsh said. “Coach D came back and we wanted to win for him as a team. That was our main goal. He worked as hard as anyone. I’m so glad that we got it done for him. He’s put so much time into this team. He did all the work, so we wanted to do whatever we could to pay him back.”

The Maroon Raiders have three games remaining. They will face Montclair on Saturday, followed by River Dell Nov. 21 and then Belleville Nov. 27. All three games are slated to be played at the Nutley Oval at 1 p.m.

The schedule ahead won’t be easy. Montclair has traditionally been one of the best public school programs in the state. River Dell, coached by DiGregorio’s friend D.J. Nimphius, owns a 5-1 record. Belleville just returned to action over the weekend after missing a month due to the coronavirus. Yes, it has not been a conventional season.

But it’s still a year that will end in a championship for the Maroon Raiders. Years and years from now, these players can return to Nutley High, look up at the walls and see that their football team was a champion like the others that grace the banners on the wall of the gym.

“We want to keep winning,” Harbison said. “As the quarterback, I do have the responsibility to be the leader of this team. So we pick each other up, after a tough game or a tough practice. We have a great group of guys. So we have Montclair and River Dell. We now have a shot to show people we can play, that Nutley is the real deal.”

“It’s a credit to the kids and the coaching staff,” DiGregorio said. “It’s a very special group. We all talk about handling adversity and how you can turn adversity into a positive. It’s my job to get the team ready.”

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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.”