By all accounts, Matt Pergola had a fine junior season last spring, scoring 52 goals. But if the Nutley star lacrosse attacker wanted to further elevate his game, he had to expand his skill set — in particular, his ability to use his right hand.
“I told him at the end of the year that next year you need to have your right hand a whole lot stronger,” Raiders head coach Mike Salvatelli said. “As great of a player as he was last year, he knew that this was his biggest weakness. From Day 1 (this preseason), I could see that it was the one thing he focused on the most in the offseason.”
“I hit the wall (a lot) and that’s the key,” Pergola said. “Every time I would go, I wanted to improve my weak hand so I would do twice as many reps with my right hand as I would with my left. I just worked on it more than my strong suits in order to improve upon my weaknesses.”
The result of all of Pergola’s reps is a player who has been unstoppable thus far in a season that is poised to rewrite the history books at Nutley. In just six games, Pergola has a state-high 46 goals for the Raiders. On April 6, he joined exclusive company in Nutley lacrosse history for when he scored his 100th career goal in a 20-12 victory over Dayton.
The 5-foot-10, 160-pound Pergola is on pace to become the school’s single-season scoring leader, eclipsing the mark of 71 currently held by assistant coach Sal Gabriele.
For his career, he has 134 through April 16.
Pergola’s blistering scoring performances have made him this week’s Observer Athlete of the Week.
“It helped me become a well-rounded player,” Pergola said about the emphasis on using his right more. “I don’t have to go just to one side, I can go to my left or my right. It makes it harder for teams to scout me and tougher to guard. It’s been so beneficial and I thank (Salvatelli) for telling me about it.”
“Freshman year, he was pretty much all lefty,” said Salvatelli, noting Pergola started to use his right more as a junior after losing his sophomore year to Covid. “Now this year, he’s just as comfortable with going to his right. He can turn and finish, he can turn and feed, or he can just take you right and then bring it back to his left hand anyway. He’s just that quick and he can read the defender better than others can.”
Salvatelli, who played at Glen Ridge, also credits Pergola for his unmatched commitment to watching and studying lacrosse.
“The kid just puts in more work than anyone. He’s just an all-around lacrosse kid,” Salvatelli said. “He watches it. Every Division I, II or III game on TV, he’ll talk about it the next day in practice with you. He watches his film for our games to see what he can do to get better. He watches as much of the opponents as I do to put together scouting reports. There’s not a day that goes by where he isn’t thinking about or doing something physically for lacrosse.”
That includes the winter where Pergola has been a guard for the Raiders’ basketball team. Pergola credits the tighter confines of the basketball court and the quicker pace of the game for helping his vision on the lacrosse field and being able to navigate in less space.
Nutley played its first-ever home night game at Tangora Field on April 6 and it was a moment Pergola won’t soon forget. Just a couple minutes into the game, he scored his 100th career goal. It was merely the beginning for Pergola, who finished with a single-game career-high 11 goals.
“It was probably the best lacrosse experience I’ve ever had because I was playing under the lights with all my friends there, all of my family, everybody there,” Pergola said. “It felt great to have that opportunity to do it at home and at night in front of my friends. My team was just backing me and supporting me and my coaches. I loved it and I can’t wait for more night games to happen.”
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)