Joe Piro expects this year’s Nutley team to once again be competitive and continue its run of successful seasons. Unfortunately for this group, that continued success will once again have to come in the face of personal adversity.
Less than two weeks before the season opener, head coach J.D. Vick had to take a leave of absence for personal reasons.
In Vick’s absence, Piro, the Maroon Raiders’ longtime athletic director has returned to the sidelines as interim coach with offensive coordinator Chris Helm in charge of the offense and defensive coordinator Jeff Martin running the defense.
For the players, it will be the third different head coach in three years due to extenuating circumstances. Longtime head coach Steve DiGregorio retired after the 2020 season due to a recurrence of pancreatic cancer, which claimed his life last October at the age of 60. Vick, who served as acting coach in 2019 when this group of seniors were freshmen, was then promoted to the head job following DiGregorio retirement.
Last year, under Vick, Nutley was 6-3 and qualified for the state tournament, but had to forfeit its first round game against Old Tappan due to a rash of positive Covid tests within the school.
“The first thing I said to them is that the true measure of a man is how you battle adversity because you’re always going to face it,” said Piro before Thursday night’s 20-7 victory over rival Bloomfield in the annual Mayor’s Trophy Game. “These kids are very resilient and what they’ve managed to accomplish given the current and past circumstances is truly, truly amazing.”
Senior Nick Bello takes over as quarterback, following the graduation of Matthew Harbison, who is now at TCNJ. Bello has impressed early on with his grasp of the offense and on Thursday threw for a touchdown and ran for a score.
“He’s been growing into the position and he’s doing a very nice job for us,” Piro said. “It’s tough to replace Matt Harbison, who was a two-year starter, but Nick knows the offense, he knows what the expectations are and he’s been doing an excellent job. We’re looking forward to seeing him succeed and grow as the season progresses.”
Clark Mohrbutter could also see some time at quarterback as well.
Helping Bello in the backfield is Mitchell Mainiero at running back. Mainiero, one of four senior captains, was part of a rotation at the position a year ago, but is primed for a much bigger role this season as he ran for 106 yards on Thursday.
Senior Mike Zitola and Javier LaBeach will also get some carries, as well as do-everything captain Brandon Lucia, who is considered the top senior in The Observer area by The McCarthy Report.
“(Brandon) can do a lot of different things, he’s a very talented athlete,” said Piro. “He knows the game, he’s a good leader. I can’t say enough good things about the young man.”
Lucia is the top returning receiver and he’ll be joined on the outside by senior captain Vincenzo Rizzuto, who caught a 30-yard TD vs. Bloomfield, and junior Joseph Volpe. Twin brothers Justin and Joseph Cifelli will also be in the mix.
Senior captain Anthony Pinal is a returning starter at left tackle and anchors the offensive line. William Jennings is a returning starter at center on the line, which also includes Nicholas Della Luna, Nicholas Conca, Richard Nguyen and sophomore Damiano Farro.
Pinal, an all-league selection on defense last season, is back at tackle along with Della Luna and Gerard Russo. LaBeach returns to start at defensive end, while Nguyen and Conca will also be asked to contribute on the defensive line.
Zitola is a three-year starter at linebacker where Jennings should also see time.
Lucia, who had an interception on Thursday, is back and should be one of North Jersey’s best safeties. Mainiero returns at cornerback opposite junior Nathan Arroyo. Volpe and both Joseph and Justin Cifelli will also see time in the secondary.
Nutley looks to continue its winning ways next Friday when it hosts Montclair. The Maroon Raiders then travel to Millburn on Sept. 16.
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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.)