NUTLEY – When J.D. Vick was appointed to take over permanently for Steve DiGregorio as the head football coach at Nutley High School, he knew that he was inheriting a solid program, especially since in 2020, the Maroon Raiders posted their first undefeated season since 1939, winning all six of their contests in the truncated schedule caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everything went pretty smoothly,” said Vick, a long-time assistant coach who was the interim head coach in 2019 when DiGregorio was taking care of his battle with pancreatic cancer. “Since we were in the same situation before, it wasn’t new. We also brought back the same coaching staff.”
But the Maroon Raiders lost 23 kids to graduation, an uncharacteristically large number to lose to graduation for an NJSIAA Group III enrollment school.
As Vick took over as head coach, he had just three returning starters on offense and four on defense.
“I think we were going to give an opportunity to play for a lot of guys,” said Vick, a native of Alabama who has been with the Maroon Raiders for the better part of the last decade. “They were going to get the chance to step up and see playing time. I think we found out what we needed to work on during the preseason and our scrimmages. And the kids did great.”
The Maroon Raiders most certainly handled the transition in roaring fashion, because they have won their first two games of the 2021 season, defeating neighboring rivals Bloomfield (18-13) and Belleville last Friday night, winning a 29-28 thriller on the new surface at Doc Ellis Field at Belleville Stadium.
The Maroon Raiders led from start to finish, but maintained the lead despite some scary moments down the stretch to secure the victory, improving Nutley’s winning streak to eight straight games.
Leading the way for the Raiders is talented senior quarterback Matt Harbison (6-foot-1, 215 pounds). Harbison has been the starter for the previous two seasons and has been everything anyone would ever want in a signal caller.
“Obviously, being a quarterback is such an impact position,” Vick said. “Matt’s worked so hard in the offseason to get ready. No one will ever outwork Matt. There’s no substitute for his experience. He’s like having a coach on the field. He can run with the ball and he can throw it. I have all the confidence in the world in Matt. He’s doing well.”
Harbison has already scored four touchdowns rushing and he’s completed 60 percent of his passes for 500 yards.
“He knows he can even do better,” Vick said. “Matt has improved from Week 1 to Week 2. He really has such an impact on our entire team.”
The team’s top running back is senior Paul Scutti (5-9, 170), who has some experience.
“He’s not totally green back there,” Vick said. “He’s one of our captains as well, another leader we hav on the field.”
Junior Mitchell Mainiero (5-9, 155) has collected a team-high 140 yards over the first two games.
The fullback is senior Frankie Contella (5-10, 190), who knows his role.
“The first thing a fullback has to do is block,” Vick said. “He knows how to block.”
The wide receivers are senior Vincent Miller (5-8, 165) and senior Frank Kokos (6-0, 190).
“They are good playmakers who are good pass catchers,” Vick said.
The tight end is talented athlete Billy Mielnicki (6-3, 225), who does a little bit of everything. So does junior Brandon Lucia (6-1, 195), who also handles the placekicking duties very well.
Senior Joey Alberti (5-8, 230) is the lone returning starter along the offensive line at tackle. Alberti is joined by senior Daniel Reyes (5-10, 220) at tackle, with big senior Paul Poplawski (6-5, 265), junior Nicholas Conca (6-0, 225) and junior Anthony Pinal (6-3, 270) sharing time at guard and junior Will Jennings (6-0, 215) at center.
Vick said that he had some concern about the inexperience of his offensive line, but they’ve obviously handled two weeks well so far.
“The scrimmages were important to us,” Vick said. “I think that’s what we had to see what happened.”
Defensively, the Maroon Raiders will use Mielnicki at defensive end, where he started last year. The defensive tackles are Alberti and Pinal, with Contella, Jennings and junior Michael Zitola (5-11, 175) at linebacker.
The secondary features Miller at cornerback, where he shined last season, making big play after big play. He is joined by tough-as-nails senior Gerard DeMaio (5-7, 155), a prototypical old school Nutley football player, at cornerback. There was a time when practically every Maroon Raider gridder was about the size of DeMaio. No one has ever questioned DeMaio’s heart – nor any Nutley football player. The Maroon Raiders all play much bigger than the height and weight listed on their roster.
Scutti and Lucia are the safeties. Vick has been very impressed with what Lucia brings to the field every time he strolls onto the Nutley Oval.
“He’s a very aggressive defensive football player,” Vick said. “And he makes all of his kicks. He’s a very important player for us. He does it all.”
Vick has been impressed with his team’s defensive effort.
“We beat a very good Belleville football team,” Vick said. “The defense stepped up when they had to. Our defense made huge plays when they had to make them. I’m just so proud of our players. And my hat’s off to the coaching staff for getting us ready.”
It’s two down this year, eight in a row all together and much more to go. Orange is next up Saturday afternoon at the Oval with kickoff slated for 1 p.m.
“Coach D (DiGregorio) is a tough act to follow,” Vick said. “I’m just very fortunate to have the opportunity to coach these kids. We’re not in bad shape at all.”
It’s safe to say that teams and programs that are enjoying eight-game winning streaks are not in bad condition.
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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.”