NUTLEY, NJ — Back in September, prior to kickoff in the season opener between the Nutley High School football team and Bloomfield at Tangorra Field/Park Oval in Nutley, a group of men were standing on the field being introduced to the crowd.
One of the men was Rich San Fillipo, who recalled that many people in the crowd couldn’t hear what was being said over the public-address system.
“I was wondering whether half the people knew who we were,” said Fillipo with a laugh during a phone interview with the Nutley Journal on Friday, Nov. 4.
Thirty years ago, Nutley Raider football fans certainly knew who those guys were.
They were members of the 1992 NHS football team, which won a state sectional championship for the first and only time in program history in the current state-playoff format.
San Fillipo was the head coach of the team.
The 1992 season was sweet redemption for the Raiders. In 1991, the Raiders beat West Essex, 14-0, in the semifinals but lost a heartbreaking 14-0 decision to West Morris in the championship game of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 state playoffs. Nutley finished with an 8-3 record.
The following season, the Raiders felt they had some unfinished business. Sure enough, they got the job done in emphatic fashion. After beating Warren Hills, 21-10, in the semifinals, the Raiders routed Morris Knolls, 39-6, to win the North 2, Group 3 state sectional championship to cap an 8-1-2 season.
Back then, the NJSIAA sectional playoffs involved just four teams, so it was a lot tougher to get into the playoffs. The NJSIAA expanded the playoffs to eight teams per section in 1998.
San Fillipo, a Belleville High graduate, came to Nutley in 1990 after successful head coaching stints at Glen Ridge and Verona. In fact, San Fillipo guided Glen Ridge to the North 2, Group 1 state titles in 1980 and 1982.
In San Fillipo’s first year at the helm in 1990, the Raiders struggled and finished with a 1-8 record. San Fillipo acknowledged that his team was trying to get used to a new coaching system during that season.
But the following season, the Raiders made a remarkable turnaround, finishing as state sectional runners-up. Then, in 1992, they became state sectional champs.
“A whole bunch of kids just bought in and said this is the way things are being done. Let’s buy into it and see what we can do,” San Fillipo said. “And there was more talent. You can see that this group that won it a year later, they were talented sophomores. A lot of them got some playing time, even back in 1990.
“The kids bought into the system after a 1-8 season and went to a state final the next year. It was like a progression.”
The Raiders were in the now-defunct Northern New Jersey Interscholastic League, which featured several strong programs, including nonpublic powers such as Bergen Catholic and St. Joseph Regional of Montvale.
One of Nutley’s ties in 1992 was against Hackensack, which San Fillipo said “had a fabulous team.”
“We might have had two state champions, maybe three state champions in our league. Hackensack was super,” San Fillipo said.
In that game against Hackensack, which was a week before the state playoffs, the Raiders scored late to get within 1 point. Nutley was going to either tie the game with the extra-point kick or go for the win with the 2-point conversion. San Fillipo knew that a tie would clinch a playoff berth for his team. Thus, the Raiders kicked the extra point to end the game in a tie.
Nutley wound up with the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, putting up terrific performances against Warren Hills and Morris Knolls.
Playing a difficult schedule prepared the Raiders for their playoff success.
“They had played in the most competitive league in New Jersey, without question,” San Fillipo said. “You’re talking St. Joe’s, Paramus Catholic, Hackensack when Greg Toal was (the head coach) at Hackensack, Don Bosco. They had already gone through some of the best teams in New Jersey, and I think they felt like, if they had played the way they were supposed to, they could win a state championship. I think this group of kids, the seniors, they had it in mind, as they came up through the freshman team, as sophomores, and then as juniors, I think they had in mind they could win the state championship if they played the way they could.”
Don Sellari, a receiver and safety, was among the leaders on that 1992 team. Sellari went on to play at Rutgers University.
“In the years that I coached, Donald was clearly the best player I coached,” San Fillipo said.
In an recent email to the Nutley Journal, Sellari said, “The things that stick out most was the way the town came together and stood behind us. Nutley’s a tight-knit football town so everywhere you went, everyone was always talking about the last game or the next game.Every player understood their role and gave every ounce of effort, every play, to not let each other down. To be able to end any aspect of your life, especially high school, with the satisfaction of achieving a team goal that we made among a group of friends was special, culminating a special time, with a special group of friends that have forged a lifelong bond.”
San Fillipo also said the Raiders boasted strong two-way linemen such as Joe Miller and Brian Catanzarite. Nick Baneky, a center and linebacker, was another standout, said San Fillipo.
Frank DeMaio, who is the current Nutley Parks & Recreation director, was the starting quarterback who exhibited tremendous versatility.
“Frank DeMaio was just so talented, not only as a thrower, but as a runner,” San Fillipo said. “Great speed, great elusiveness.”
DeMaio has fond memories of that team. In an email to the Nutley Journal, DeMaio said, “Our ’92 team was a tight-knit group of guys who trusted in each other and our coaches. We were a group of tough kids and tough competitors with a lot of support from our community and our families. All of which were very vital in the success we had. The NNJIL back then was the toughest division in the state of N.J. It was tough team after tough team, week in and week out.
“Each week brought a new challenge to the table,” DeMaio continued. “After going through a very tough schedule we were well prepared for the playoffs. Our group of seniors set a goal as freshmen after a successful freshman season. That goal was to win a championship before we graduated. What a lot of people may not know is that, as sophomores, we had a good amount of us playing at the varsity level. We also went 1-8 that year. Junior year turned it around to 8-3, with a loss in the state final, then the obvious with winning a state title as seniors. It was the journey I remember the most. It was the goal setting and the perseverance of the guys that made it more than just a game. The hard work by everyone involved and the satisfaction of a championship to finish it all off. It is a memory I cherish, because not every athlete gets to experience a state title. “The guys we played against have become friends, and we can still sit and relive the games we played. It’s something I can take with me forever.”
DeMaio was especially grateful for San Fillipo’s guidance.
“Towards the end of that final game, I remember talking with coach San Fillipo as our starters got pulled out of the final quarter because we were up 39-6,” DeMaio recalled. “A lot of what he said sticks with me today and was the basis for how I coached my players when I coached high school football. Those memories will last a lifetime and the lessons learned during those years as a player have helped me in the things I do today and how I approach my everyday life.”
What was special about that team was the camaraderie that remains strong 30 years later.
“A lot of the guys on the team still talk to each other today, and we just got together for a celebration of 30 years since that championship,” DeMaio said. “It was (at) the first game under the newly lit oval. Was fun to talk about old times and all of our kids.”
Notes: In all, the Raiders have been to five state sectional finals. In addition to 1991 and 1992, Nutley played in the state sectional finals in 1988, 1995 and 2010. They lost to Randolph in a classic final by a score of 15-12 in 1988. They fell to West Morris, 21-0, in the 1995 final. Nutley played at MetLife Stadium in 2010, the first year for the new stadium, falling to Morristown.
DeMaio’s children were also standout NHS athletes. His son, Frank DeMaio Jr., won over 100 matches as a wrestler and was a state tournament qualifier. He went to Delaware Valley University to continue his wrestling career but soon transferred to Caldwell College, where he played football. He played as a wide receiver as a freshman, lost his sophomore year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then finished his last two years as a quarterback.
DeMaio’s daughter, Lia DeMaio, was a key senior on this past spring’s NHS softball team, which won the North 2, Group 3 sectional title and finished with a 21-6 record. She is currently a freshman at Georgian Court University, where she will continue her softball career.