NJSIAA grid playoffs: The local highs and lows

Back on Sept. 10, there was a thrilling high school football game between two local archrivals, with Nutley coming away with a one-point victory over neighbor Belleville, winning 29-28.

One single point.

It designates the difference between a state playoff team and another sitting on the outside, looking in.

The two teams have similar 6-3 records, but as fate would have it, Nutley earned a berth in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group III playoffs, traveling Friday night at 6 p.m. to Bergen County to face Northern Valley/Old Tappan.

As for 6-3 Belleville, they didn’t have enough points in the new-fangled NJSIAA system to qualify for the postseason. So the Buccaneers will get what the state deems a crossover game and what used to be dubbed as a “consolation” game, but there was never any consoling a team that doesn’t qualify for the state playoffs.

The Maroon Raiders earned a berth in their section, despite losing their last two games against Bergenfield (16-13) and West Essex (32-0).

Regardless of their last two results, the Maroon Raiders are as pleased as punch to be getting a chance to be a participant in the state playoffs.

“The guys have earned it,” said Nutley’s first-year head coach J.D. Vick. “It’s a reward for their hard work. It’s an invitation only tournament. Not everyone makes it.”

Despite the loss to West Essex, Vick said that he knew the Maroon Raiders were headed for the playoffs last week.

“We felt confident that we were in,” Vick said. “If we beat West Essex, we thought we could get a home game. But we knew we were in. We were just waiting to see who we were going to play.”

Just making the state playoffs a year after 22 seniors graduated from the program, from the team that was coached by the late Steve DiGregorio to an undefeated Super Football Conference divisional crown, the first undefeated year in Nutley since 1939, was an achievement in itself.

There was a major turnover among Raider Nation, with so many key players heading off to college and the beloved head coach losing his battle to pancreatic cancer.

But here they are, headed for the postseason once again.

“I think it speaks to the character of the team,” said Vick, who was the interim head coach in 2019 while DiGregorio began his battle with the deadly disease. “We had a lot of players in new positions. We moved guys to the offensive line because of need. Not once did I have a complaint from anyone. It was all, ‘Yes, Coach, whatever you need.’ That was the mentality of the whole team.”

The Maroon Raiders have 16 seniors on the 2021 version, a group of older players who Vick relied upon to lead the transition.

“I had high expectations of the seniors,” Vick said. “Even if they’re not a captain, they can still be a leader. I think they learned a lot from the seniors last year. They were able to do the same thing this year.”

Vick was asked about the physical condition of his team.

“I think we’re pretty healthy,” Vick said. “We have some guys banged up, but that’s typical of a team this time of year. They should be ready for the game.”

Although Old Tappan has a losing record at 4-5, they have a history of doing well in the state playoffs. They have had a handful of their graduates move on to major college and some of them, like Kyle Fuller of the Los Angeles Rams and Devin Fuller of the Atlanta Falcons. Their head coach Kevin Dunn is one of the most respected mentors in Bergen County.

“They’re very good,” Vick said. “We’ve been breaking down film on them all weekend. We found out for sure late (Saturday), but we sort of knew. They’re a well coached team. They’re the best team we’ve faced this year.”

The Golden Knights didn’t look like a playoff team two weeks ago, but they emerged with a home game after defeating Passaic County Tech and Morris Knolls (a 52-34 shootout) in consecutive weeks.

The Golden Knights operate with a spread offense, a lot like Bergenfield, which defeated the Maroon Raiders two weeks ago.

“I think we match up okay with them, but we didn’t want our defense having questions,” Vick said. “I don’t think we’ve played our best game yet.”

While Nutley is headed for the playoffs, Belleville is headed to a game against Wayne Hills. No consolation at all, even if the game will be played at Doc Ellis Field, more than likely Wednesday night.

With the new playoff scoring system, Belleville head coach Jermain Johnson knew that the Buccaneers were not a playoff team before the team’s final regular season game last Friday night against North Bergen, a 27-7 victory. In fact, the Bucs won their last three games against Kearny, Passaic and North Bergen. Still, no playoffs.

“I think even if we were 8-1, it was going to be hard to get in,” Johnson said. “It kills me. It’s obviously disappointed. We knew what we had to do. I thought we had a really good shot against Nutley and we lost. I thought we had a good shot against Millburn and we lost (24-22 in overtime). We hurt ourselves, no doubt. But it’s tough to see other teams with 6-3 records getting in. Heck, there are teams under .500 (like Old Tappan) that are in.”

Johnson said he didn’t tell his players that they weren’t going to the playoffs.

“We didn’t have that conversation,” Johnson said. “It’s really frustrating, because in the old power point system, we would have been in.”

Johnson said that his team will prepare for the “consolation” round.

“We have nine kids who would love to play college football,” Johnson said. “We want to give them a chance to be seen.”

Johnson knows his opponent this week very well. He spent 10 years as an assistant coach at Wayne Hills before leaving four years ago to become the head coach at Belleville.

“I know they’re typical hard-nosed Wayne Hills kids,” said Johnson of the Wayne Hills program which has won 10 NJSIAA state sectional titles over the years, some with famed head coach Chris Olsen. “I know because I coached them. I think it will be good to see where we’re at.”

Wayne Hills has a totally untypical 2-7 record this season, but Johnson knows the Patriots could be a sleeping giant.

Another local team on the outside is Lyndhurst. Just two years removed from their own state sectional championship, the Golden Bears own a solid 4-3 record, but just not good enough to earn a North Jersey Section 2, Group II playoff berth.

The Super Football Conference did a phenomenal thing over the weekend, instituting a new Steve DiGregorio Young Man of the Year, remembering the great things both on and off the field that DiGregorio did in terms of community service with his son’s charity Derek’s Dreams, as well with his hometown of Nutley. Each member of the 112-team Super Football Conference selected one player to be a representative who best displayed the characteristics of the late coach.

In January, one of those 112 players will be selected as the Steve DiGregorio Young Man of the Year.

Nutley announced that their candidate for the award is senior quarterback Matthew Harbison, who also is giving of his free time with charity work.

“I don’t think the Super Football Conference could have picked a better person to name that award after than Coach D,” Vick said. “And I think Matt is a fine choice. No doubt, he has the high character that was necessary to be considered. He’s a hard worker who serves the community well. It’s well deserved.”

Harbison just recently took it upon himself to help Nutley residents that had their homes devastated by the floods caused by Hurricane Ida in September. He’s also active in the Christian Fellowship Association group that Vick heads.




Nutley head football coach J.D. Vick is ready to lead his Maroon Raiders into this weekend’s NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group III state playoffs against Old Tappan. 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.”