Larry Mitschow takes great pride knowing Nutley has been in the top division of the Super Essex Conference for girls basketball — the American Division — for nine of his first 10 seasons as head coach.
So while the Maroon Raiders are set to compete in the SEC’s Liberty Division this season, that isn’t a reason for despair. Instead, Mitschow sees it as an opportunity for a young roster to gain confidence and experience success before hopefully moving back to the American in a year.
Last season, Nutley went 13-14 overall, but just 2-10 in an American Division slate that included two games apiece with perennial state powers Immaculate Conception, University, East Orange and West Orange.
“We’re excited to be back (in the Liberty), I think that’s where we belong at the moment,” said Mitschow. “I think it builds our confidence when we win some games early.
“Playing in that top division is great in that it makes us better in the long run, especially in the state tournament. But I think overall (the second division) is where we belong so we can get the confidence and succeed a little bit more.”
Adding to Mitschow’s excitement is a roster that looks to be deeper with more legitimate offensive options than Nutley’s had in recent memory.
Leading the way for the Raiders this season will be a trio of experienced guards in juniors Cynthia DePersio, Anna Green and Riley Sebastiano.
Green, who is the top returning scorer after averaging 8.1 points per game last season, while DePersio is a stellar defender expected to provide more on the offensive end. Both DePersio and Green will share the point guard spot, with both equally capable of playing off the ball, giving Mitschow peace of mind on the sidelines and the ability to be more creative on the floor.
“They’ll both see time at the point, they’ll also see time at the wing. They can play both positions pretty well so that will be a nice combo to have and they can give each other a break when they need it,” said Mitschow. “I can’t remember the last time where I had two girls that could handle the ball with confidence. As a coach, it’s priceless.”
Sebastiano might be the team’s best perimeter shooter as she and Green hit 22 3-pointers apiece last season as sophomores. Adding to the Raiders’ perimeter game is sophomore guard Grace Christe, who made 14 3-pointers a season ago and will start as Nutley has adapted a four-guard attack this season.
Joining the quartet is sophomore forward Isabel Riccardi. The 5-foot-10 Ricciardi flashed her immense potential late last season and will be counted upon to give Nutley an interior scoring presence that it’s been sorely missing for years.
“She’s probably the tallest, most athletic girl that we’ve played at the position since I’ve been here. We’re really excited about her,” Mitschow said. “She’s going to be huge for us this year rebounding, blocking shots, she’s going to be a huge presence in the middle.
“For once we’re going to have someone down low in the post position where we can go for points.”
In years past, Nutley has rarely expanded its rotation beyond six or seven players, but this year’s Maroon Raiders team should have the depth to go deeper into its bench. A big reason for that is the return of Liani Minichini, the team’s lone senior. Minichini missed all of last season, but flashed potential from the perimeter as an underclassmen, sinking 56 3-pointers over her freshman and sophomore seasons.
“On any given night. We could have five different leading scorers in the first five games which I love as a coach,” said Mitschow. “I think there’s five or six girls that I can say could be the leading scorer that night.”
Junior guard Mina Shaw is fighting to break into the starting lineup, but is sure to make her presence on the defensive end either starting or off the bench. Junior Morgan Dolagahan and Sofia Miller are two more potential shooters off the bench.
Sophomore Cassey Arroyo, who gives Nutley another option running the point, and freshman Makayla Albert are also looking to carve out roles in the rotation.
Nutley opens the season with two consecutive SEC Liberty contests as it hosts Newark Academy on Friday, Dec. 16, then travels to longtime rival Bloomfield the next morning at 11 a.m.
“Every game should be a winnable game. Last year we looked at the schedule and saw like 10 games on there we knew (were losses),” said Mitschow. “This year, the kids look at the schedule with enthusiasm and the belief that we can do this. They realize we should contend for a league title.”
Learn more about the writer ...
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.)