Photos by Steve Ellmore: Nutley vs. Livingston, Greater Newark Tournament final, May 20
NUTLEY, NJ – When a team loses a championship game or championship series, it’s always a disappointing feeling for the players and coaches.
But after a loss to Livingston in the Greater Newark Tournament final on the afternoon of May 20 at historical Doc Goeltz Field in Verona, the baseball players at Nutley High School were far from discouraged. After all, a year ago, the team was only 11-15.
Following the 8-2 defeat at the hands of Livingston, the Nutley Raiders had a respectable 17-8 mark heading into the state tournament.
“We have a young team and the guys have bounced back nicely from a losing season,” said veteran Nutley head coach Bob Harbison, who was a fine player for the school in the early 1980s. “Hey, the kid who beat us (Ryan Cardona), was as good as any pitcher in Essex County this spring. He also beat us in a regular season game. What’s really tough is that we lost all three of our games against Livingston this year.”
But Nutley had the ability to come through in the big games. In the semifinals, NHS upset top-seeded Seton Hall Prep. The Pirates had won a record five straight GNT titles heading into the 86th GNT, which had the final postponed a day due to poor weather.
“We always seem to play well against Seton Hall Prep,” said Harbison, who led Nutley to a GNT crown in 2004 in his first year as the NHS head coach. “Our school has a great tradition in baseball. We really feel we can compete with any of the top teams around.”
Against the Lancers, a school that won seven GNT titles (SHP leads with 17), Nutley had a chance to do some damage in the first inning, loading the bases with none out. However, a strikeout and double play ended the threat.
“That was a costly inning because we could have put some early pressure on Livingston,” said Harbison, who was a big fan of Yankee star Don Mattingly. “You don’t want to let a dominating pitcher off the hook.”
Livingston put the game away by scoring six runs in the third frame to take a 6-1 lead. In its three games against Nutley this spring, the Lancers racked up 25 runs while only allowing 11.
“They have a very good lineup,” said Harbison, who played on the 1984 squad which lost to Millburn, 4-3, in the finals. “Every kid in the lineup is a tough out. But we did have a pitching staff which could handle dangerous hitters. We proved that in the GNT semis against Seton Hall Prep. Mike Sheppard Jr. has a quality team every year.”
In the loss to Livingston, Nutley junior star Marty Higgins had two hits and scored a run. Higgins, a top shortstop and ace relief pitcher, took a gaudy .447 average into the 2018 state tournament, and had four homers and 25 RBI.
“Marty is already committed to St. John’s University,” said Harbison. “Don’t forget, he’s also very good in basketball, just like his dad was.”
Higgins, who makes the tough plays at shortstop look easy, averaged close to two strikeouts per inning. The youngster took a 2-0 record into the states, and had 39 strikeouts in only 22 innings of work.
Along with Higgins, the big bats for NHS have been senior center fielder Pete Lopez and sophomore Kevin Hogan, who helped the squad at third or first base. Lopez, the leadoff man, had a .321 mark heading into the states, while Hogan, who bats in the clean-up spot, had an average of .385.
“Kevin is just a big, strong kid,” lauded the personable Nutley head coach, who attended college at Fairleigh Dickinson University-Teaneck.
Nutley, which has a 4-10 mark in GNT finals, could frustrate its foes with a quality mound staff. The leaders included sophomore lefty Trevor Santos, junior righty Josh O’Neill and junior righty John Luberto. The three had a combined record of 11-6 going into state play.
“Trevor can get batters out with several quality pitches,” said Harbison. “And he can also help out in left field.
“I tell the kids that if they want to get the good results, they always have to play in a team concept. That’s what we’ve done throughout the 2018 season. I’m already looking forward to what this group can achieve in 2019.”
DIAMOND NOTES – The GNT began in 1933, but became an all-Essex County tourney in 1973… SHP has made it to the finals 23 times, including 12 in a row from 1997-2008… Nutley won its first GNT title in 1993, 10-3, over West Essex, led by pitcher Larry Mohs. The team beat SHP in 2001 and 2002… Under Harbison, NHS reached the finals in 2004, 2005, 2009, 2012, 2016 and 2018… In the GNT, Nutley has a 5-4 edge over Livingston, but is 0-2 in the finals… A day after the loss to Livingston in the GNT, the second-seeded Raiders defeated No. 15 seed Snyder, 2-1, at the Park Oval in the first round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group 3 state tournament. The win advanced the Raiders to the quarterfinals against seventh-seeded Chatham on May 24 at the Oval. The winner was to face either third-seeded Somerville or 11th-seeded Summit in the semifinals May 29. The final is June 1.