An outbreak of the COVID-19 Coronavirus brought the Nutley High School football and girls’ soccer seasons to a sudden end last Friday, when it was learned that a handful of athletes and coaches from both teams tested positive for the virus.
The Observer has learned through sources that the rash of COVID-positive tests can possibly be traced back to a Halloween party than many of the athletes attended on Oct. 30. Some of the athletes who tested positive for the virus last week said that they indeed were at the Halloween party.
Regardless of where it started – and doing district-wide virus tracing – the football team had to forfeit its game against Northern Valley/Old Tappan in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group III playoffs Friday night and the girls’ soccer team had to forfeit its game in the North Jersey Section 2, Group III playoffs against Cranford, also scheduled for Friday in Nutley.
Both programs were immediately shut down and after the forfeit losses, the seasons of both teams came to a crashing halt.
Nutley athletic director Joe Piro said that the moves to forfeit both games were imperative for the safety of all the schools involved, not just Nutley.
“We met with health officials Thursday and realized that things were going to be problematic,” Piro said. “To protect the integrity of the tournaments, we thought the best course of action was to withdraw from the tournaments. We couldn’t postpone the games and try to replay them. For the health and safety of the kids involved, we thought this was the best course of action. We had to err on the side of caution.”
Needless to say, having to forfeit NJSIAA state playoff games is never easy – but it gets even harder when your school in the only one in the state that forfeited games due to an outbreak of COVID-19. If this was 2020 and schools were cancelling games left and right, then it would be easier to understand. But in 2021, with most people – adults and their children – aren’t even wearing face masks anymore. The cancelations came as a shocker to everyone involved in high school athletics.
“Any time you tell kids that they can’t play, it’s emotional,” Piro said. “But you can’t let emotions get in the way.”
“It stinks,” Nutley head girls’ soccer coach Mike DiPiano said. “We have 11 seniors on the team. We have four players who were four-year starters. We had some that never missed a game in four years. This was the year that we could have made a run at it (the NJSIAA North 2, Group III title).”
DiPiano had to inform his team about the cancelation while they were on the field. Cranford, the Maroon Raiders’ opponent, was already at the field warming up when the word came down.
“I had to speak to them on the field,” DiPiano said. “I really liked our chances. We had a nice unit this year. But we were never prepared for something like this. I had to break the news to them from a distance. I liked our chances. It’s going to be really hard watching the other teams play on YouTube. I think that’s going to hurt even more.”
Nutley head football coach J.D. Vick saw his first season as a head coach come to an end, but not on the field as expected.
“The state playoff is invitation only,” Vick said. “We earned a spot in those playoffs. For us to not be able to finish our season on the field on our terms is very disappointing. Especially for our seniors.”
The Maroon Raiders have 16 seniors on the football roster. The girls’ soccer team has 11 seniors. None of those student/athletes got a chance to end their careers the right way, win or lose.
“I think devastated is a good word to use,” said Vick, who conducted a team Zoom call Friday night to tell his players the horrific news.
“At first, we were in disbelief, that this couldn’t happen,” Vick said. “Even if you go to the state playoffs and lose, there’s still some closure. It’s still on your terms. We wanted the ball in the hands of our seniors, looking to settle things on the field. Not like this.”
The Maroon Raiders had just gotten over the death of former head coach Steve DiGregorio, who died in mid-October after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. DiGregorio, who coached the Maroon Raiders to an undefeated divisional championship season a year ago, was 60 years old.
“It really just didn’t seem fair especially after all we’ve been through,” Vick said. “Our kids, our staff worked their butts off to prepare for the state tournament. We were breaking down film every night getting ready. It’s bad for everyone, for us, for Old Tappan. It’s not fair to Old Tappan either.”
Vick said that he will always hold this class of seniors close to his heart.
“I was the freshman coach when they all came in,” Vick said. “To see them all grow up before your eyes is special. This was the worst possible way to end this season.”
DiPiano has still yet to talk to his team after the enforced quarantine began.
“I think it has been a tough fall for all of us,” DiPiano said. I never had a chance to tell them how much they meant to me. When you lose, you give them a hug and tell them how much they meant to us. But we never had that chance. I haven’t heard of any other school in the state doing what we did. Morally and ethically, we did the right thing.”
Piro realized he’s not the most popular guy in the district these days because of this decision.
“Of course, I feel for the kids,” PIro said. “They work hard all season to get to the state playoffs. But we had to act for the best interest of our kids, the best interest of the Cranford kids and the best interests of the Old Tappan kids. We had to make a tough decision.”
DiPiano questioned the finality of the virus and the aftermath.
“When will this all end?” DiPiano asked. “When will it all stop? We would be huddling and high-fiving each other right now. We just never had the chance and that’s sad.”
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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.”