Nutley HS football: A century of glorious moments

The 1960 state championship team
The 1988 team
The 1992 state sectional championship team

NUTLEY, NJ — The first year for the Nutley High School football program was in 1919.

A century has passed, and there have been some glorious teams, players, moments and coaches in the history of Maroon Raiders football.

One person who has followed the Raiders for decades is Carl Gardner. A 1957 NHS graduate, Gardner has been to almost every game, home and away. He said he has only missed 16 games in 65 years. Gardner has seen more than 600 Nutley games, which is almost two-thirds of all games Nutley has ever played.

Gardner remembers the 1954 game with Montclair. He was a sophomore back then. The game was held at the Oval, and attracted the most people ever there, with about 9,400 fans.

“I got there a half-hour before the game, and there was no place to sit,” said Gardner, the Nutley historian for the Nutley Third Half Club. “It was jammed. There were bleachers circling the Oval, jammed with people. People were sitting on the grass in front of the bleachers.”

Gardner remembers the Raiders were down by a touchdown with less than a minute left when Nutley’s Mario Cocchiola recovered a Montclair fumble and then lateralled to teammate Lou Pietoso. But Montclair tackled Pietoso before he got to the end zone. There was one last play. The Raiders attempted a pass, but it fell incomplete, as Montclair held on for the 13-7 win.

In the early years, the Raiders achieved remarkable success. In 1922, the Raiders outscored their opponents a staggering 414-0, under the program’s first coach, George Stanford, who coached 23 seasons until 1941.

In 1929, Nutley posted its only perfect season in its history, finishing 8-0 and being declared as state co-champions with Asbury Park. Nutley, which had allowed only six points all year, challenged Asbury Park to a game, but Asbury Park turned down the challenge.

In 1939, the team finished 8-0-1, with the tie against East Orange. That season, the team went to Florida to face a formidable Suwannee, Fla. team that had allowed just 13 combined points all year. Nutley won, 14-0.

In 1940, Nutley finished as the No. 1 team in the state with an 8-1 record, with the one loss to Hillside.

The 1960 team also finished as the state’s No. 1 team by the Newark News, going 8-1 under head coach Sandy Phillips. The only loss was to Orange High School on the road.

Sam Battaglia, a 1964 graduate, was a star lineman for the Raiders. In 1962, Battaglia and the Raiders defeated Montclair, 25-19.

“Back then, it was like beating Bergen Catholic today,” said Battaglia of the win over Montclair.

Battaglia, who has served as the president of the Nutley Third Half Club for the past 12 years, said Montclair, East Orange and Clifton were the top teams that Nutley faced in his day.

The Raiders were always competitive when he played.

“We never got blown out,” said Battaglia, a lineman who went to earn a full football scholarship at the University of Maryland. “We had our share of winning blowouts.”

And of course, Battaglia and other former NHS players are always proud to say that the Raider program has a whopping 53-19-4 record over rival Belleville.

The Nutley-Belleville game started in 1924. One famous Nutley-Belleville game came in 1957. It was dubbed the “Mud Bowl.” Because of incessant rain over several days, the game was postponed three times and finally played on a Tuesday afternoon at the Park Oval. The field was drenched in mud. Nutley won, 13-0.

The Nutley-Belleville game was played on the Thanksgiving Day holiday from 1984-2011. It then served as Nutley’s season opener from 2012-15. After a two-year hiatus, the teams resumed the series in 2018 with Nutley winning 20-13.

Battaglia played with the late Ben Hawkins, a 1962 NHS graduate who went on to play as a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL.

In 1973, the Raiders were ranked No. 2 in the state and hosted Westfield, the No. 1 team in the state, in front of a capacity crowd at the Oval. The game was scoreless in the third quarter when the Raiders appeared to score on a QB sneak on fourth-and-goal. One of the refs signalled touchdown, but the opposite field judge overruled it. The game ended in a 0-0 tie.

In 1978, Nutley faced a good Essex Catholic team. Things seemed bleak as the Raiders trailed 14-0 with 26 seconds left. But Nutley got on the board on a TD catch-and-run, followed by the two-point conversion, to cut it to 14-8 with 15 seconds remaining. The Raiders then recovered the onside kick. Nutley capitalized with a TD pass, with the NHS player beating a defender for the pass at the goal line with four seconds remaining. The subsequent extra-point kick was good and the Raiders won, 15-14. Steve DiGregorio, the current NHS football head coach, was a senior captain on that Raider team.

The Raiders had a memorable run that started with Pete LaBarbiera taking over as head coach in 1982.

In 1988, the Raiders had one of their best seasons. Joe Piro, the current NHS athletic director, was a senior lineman on that team.

“We had four first-team all-county players on that team, and probably three or four second- team,” recalled Piro, who has been the Nutley AD since 2004. “That’s unheard of.”

The Raiders dominated their opponents with their size and strength.

“We were so big and so strong that by halftime, the score would be 7-0 and by the time the game was over, it was like 48-7. We just wore you down,” Piro said.

The Raiders that season advanced to the state sectional final for the first time in the current state playoff format, which was first instituted in 1974. They traveled to Randolph for the title game.

It was the biggest game ever in Nutley.

“It was a great experience. We were the first team in Nutley history to get that far…. There were 15 DeCamp buses from Nutley that went to Randolph. People hung signs on the storefronts, ‘Closed for the big game.’ It was very Main St. USA, and that had never happened before, and to be a part of that, was really something special.”

Piro said there were thousands of fans in attendance.

“I didn’t play in front of a crowd that big when I was in college,” said Piro, who went to Millersville University in Pennsylvania.

The championship game turned out to be a classic.

“Coach Pete said to us before that game, ‘Win or lose, there will never be a day that goes by that you won’t think of this game,’ and he was absolutely right,” Piro said. “I can unequivocally say that 30 years have gone by, and every day, at some point or another, you just think about that game.”

The Raiders led 12-7 with 40 seconds left in the game. Randolph faced a fourth down-and-40. They threw a Hail Mary pass. The Raiders were called for pass interference. It was a spot foul, and the ball was put on the goal line. Randolph scored with about 15 seconds left and won the game, 15-12.

LaBarbiera stepped down after the 1989 season. Rich SanFillipo, a Belleville guy who had success at Verona, took over the helm.

In just his second season, in 1991, the Raiders advanced to the North 2, Group 3 championship game, but lost to West Morris, 14-0.

The following year, the Raiders were determined to finish the job. That season, they were 5-0 and traveled to Montvale to face St. Joseph, the No. 2 team in the state. Nutley pulled off the win, 14-13, after blocking a late extra-point kick.

The Raiders went on to win the 1992 state title, beating Morris Knolls, 39-6, in the North 2, Group 3 sectional final to cap an 8-1-2 campaign.

Chuck Piro, Joe’s brother, was on that 1992 team. The running joke between the Piro brothers  is which team was better — the 1988 team or 1992 team.

“If the ‘88 team played the ‘92 team, we would spot them two touchdowns and beat them by three,” Piro said in good nature.

In 2010, the Raiders, in DiGregorio’s seventh year at the helm, won two playoff games on the road, beating Colonia and Rahway, to return to the North 2, Group 3 state sectional championship game, which was played at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford. Unfortunately, NHS lost to Morristown, 40-6, to finish an 8-4 season.

Including this year’s final 5-5 record, the Raiders have an all-time 495-391-54 record.

Yes, NHS football will always have a special place in the hearts of Nutley residents. Here’s to another century of glorious moments.

Editor’s Note: I would like to thank Gardner, Piro, Battaglia and the Third Half Club for their assistance with this article.