There was a crisp early spring chill in the air at the Nutley Oval Saturday afternoon. The sun was brightly shining over the newly refurbished Oval, complete with an artificial FieldTurf surface. The temperature was hovering right about 50 degrees. It was perfect weather for a football game, especially at the Oval.
But wait! There wasn’t a football game being played. The wrestling mats were down.
Yes, indeed, this was high school wrestling being held outdoors.
Ever because of COVID-19 regulation and ever since the NJSIAA moved the high school wrestling and girls’ volleyball seasons to this unique hybrid of a six-week campaign between winter and spring sports, the powers-that-be at Nutley High School thought that it might be a nice novelty to hold at least one wrestling match outdoors.
It could never happen any other way. Let’s face it. You’re not about to hold a match outdoors in January or February, when the temperatures never get above freezing.
But in this new fangled creation of in-between seasons? It certainly could take place.
“Once the state moved it to begin in March, I sat down with (Nutley athletic director) Joe (Piro) and asked if we could wrestle outside,” said Nutley head wrestling coach Mike DiPiano. “I wondered whether we could pull this off, to go outside and have fans.”
Piro figured it would make sense to have the outdoor dual meet against local rival Bloomfield High School, where his good friend Steve Jenkins is the athletic director.
So the Nutley athletic staff rolled out the red carpets and the maroon mats last Saturday to host a totally unique situation, an outdoor high school wrestling match.
Of course, there were all the same safety protocols that are necessary for any sporting event these days. The wrestlers were indeed all tested for COVID-19 and even though it was Senior Day for the Maroon Raider graduating class, only four spectators were allowed per wrestler.
However, there were hundreds of interested wrestling fans lined along Franklin Avenue on the Oval side, peering through and above the fence to catch a glimpse. Needless to say, the outdoor match between rivals brought out a different sense of excitement.
“It was just a cool experience,” said DiPiano. “These kids are going to be able to say that they were the only ones to wrestle at the Oval. We will be back to a regular season next year, but for now, we thought it would be a way to give them something different with a different setting. It’s almost picturesque.”
DiPiano said that the Nutley Oval has been used as a setting for television shows such as Law and Order in the past and The Equalizer with New Jersey native Queen Latifah as its star.
“It’s a great place to hold events, so why not wrestling?” DiPiano said.
The wrestlers agreed.
“It’s awesome,” said senior heavyweight Billy Searle, who spent many an afternoon playing football on the Oval, but never wrestling. “It’s the best thing to be wrestling for the fans, who support us all the time. It’s great to be facing such a good rival like Bloomfield. I never thought I’d get the chance to be part of this. To be wrestling outdoors in the beginning of April; is just so awesome. It’s such a different atmosphere. It feels great.”
Searle said that he never lets the cold weather bother him, so the chill didn’t matter.
“As long as I’m a zone, it doesn’t really bother me,” said Searle, who didn’t get to wrestle because his opponent forfeited. “I would have loved to get a chance to be out there on the mat for my last home match ever. It’s where I always came to battle.”
Fellow senior Mike LaTorre, the team’s 195-pounder, was also grateful to have a season.
“I’m just thankful to get the opportunity to wrestle,” said LaTorre, who won his match Saturday by a 10-4 decision over Christopher Kopacz. “I’m grateful to get the chance to wrestle outside. I just appreciate everything today. I just love it. To be among the first ones to ever wrestle outside is an honor. It’s kind of sad that it’s coming to an end, but I’m grateful to just have the chance.”
LaTorre said that he also wasn’t worried about the early spring chill in the air.
“I am trying to block it all out and focus on myself,” LaTorre said. “I’m glad it’s not raining. The conditions usually in the wrestling room are really hot, so this is a thrill.”
Senior Anthony Haines, the team’s 182-pounder, lost a tough 3-0 decision to Bloomfield’s Zachary Andruchowitz, who won the 100th match of his career last week.
“It’s just awesome to be out here with everyone on the field where I grew up,” Haines said. “I never thought I’d ever get this chance. I was looking forward to this match all week. I just worry about what I can control. I just want to try to make the day as special as possible.”
It was a special day, just not in terms of wins and losses for wrestlers like Haines.
“It’s been a weird year,” DiPiano said. “We really haven’t been worried about results. We’re just thankful to be wrestling. We’re having quality, not quantity. We would have liked to have a regular season, but it didn’t happen. So this way, we gave our kids something special.”
In addition to the seniors being honored for their last home match, the wrestling managers and members of the wrestling auxiliary were also remembered for their contributions over the years.
“It was done for the experience,” DiPiano said. “It was a chance to do something that had never been done before. It was a great day. We had great weather. We just didn’t get a Nutley result.”
The final score was Bloomfield 55, Nutley 18, but on a day like Saturday, none of that really mattered. It was all about the event, not the outcome, a chance of a lifetime.
And everyone was lucky that it didn’t rain.
Bloomfield’s 100-win wrestler Zachary Andruchowitz (left) battled Nutley’s Anthony Haines in the 182-pound match, won by Anchuchowitz by a 3-0 decision. Bloomfield won the match, 55-18, in a unique outdoor wrestling match held at the Nutley Oval last Saturday. Photo by Jim Hague
Nutley’s Mike LaTorre (top) has control over Bloomfield’s Christopher Kopacz in the 195-pound match won by LaTorre, 10-4. Bloomfield won the match, 55-18. Photo by Jim Hague
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.”