Raritan Honors Wrestling Coach Rob Nucci with ‘Last Ride’ Celebration
HAZLET - Friday night's tribute to Rob Nucci showed that his legacy as Raritan's wrestling coach isn't about the gaudy numbers or state titles.
It's about guys like Dennis Andriola, 38, and Phil O'Hara, 36, who wrestled for Nucci 20 years ago, still caring about the program like they just turned in their singlet yesterday. It's about all the cogs in Raritan's "Green Machine" over the years, stretching from men pushing 40 to more recent graduates like Dan Seidenberg (2009) and A.J. Erven (2018), assembling to thank him for all he's done for them.
"It's just a testament to what coach Nuc has built here," Seidenberg said. "When you join the program, it's for life."
It's about his old high school coach, Mike Baldi, who coached Nucci at Toms River North in the early 1990s, making the trip all the way from North Carolina to pay tribute to his former two-time district champion.
"I'm just so proud of him," Baldi said. "Hazlet struck gold when they got him up here."
The man affectionately known as Coach Nuc (pronounced "Nooch") announced before this season that he was hanging it up after 26 years as a head coach — 23 of them with the Rockets. A packed Launch Pad and raucous student section at Raritan honored him at his final regular-season home match with cheers, hugs, a spoken tribute, and in fitting Nucci style, a 42-27 win over Wall.
Many of the alumni were sporting black T-shirts with "Nuc's Last Ride" imprinted on them. The Rockets will most likely host two more matches on Feb. 5 when the NJSIAA Team Tournament kicks off, but they wanted to make sure to celebrate Nucci's achievements first.
"The best memories are just the relationships with the kids," Nucci said. "I know their brothers and sisters, moms and dads. Shoot, I know their pets. And that's what makes this place special. In this day and age, everybody's so damn sensitive, but you can still coach hard and teach hard here, and most of the parents respect that."
Those bonds produced unprecedented winning on the mat in Hazlet. Between his stints at Pinelands and Raritan, Nucci has 468 career wins, which ranks in the top 10 in state history and second in Shore Conference history behind only Howell's John Gagliano (555).
Nucci's record at Raritan is 450-128 after the win over Wall. His teams have won 14 division titles, 7 district titles, 5 sectional titles and two overall Group 2 titles. The Rockets, who are 11-5 this season, never had a losing dual meet season in his 23 years despite consistently wrestling a rugged schedule.
He also has produced 60 district champions, 9 region champs and 9 state place-winners. Seidenberg led the way by finishing second in the state in 2007 and 2008.
Nucci put the Rockets on the map in the state landscape and within the Shore as a perennial contender. They have finished ranked in the top 10 in the Shore 15 times during his tenure, and 12 times have landed in the state top 25.
Nucci was only 25 when he got the job at Raritan. He had coached at Pinelands for three seasons, fresh off the end of his own wrestling career at what is now The College of New Jersey.
A crucial aspect of his early success at Raritan was thanks to a youth feeder program created in 1998 by the core group of Art Lynch, Don Murphy, Glen Mason, Jimmy Erven and Scott Whelan. That group has continued with the youth system during Nucci's entire tenure, giving the program continuity and a consistent set of expectations.
"He was the last piece of the puzzle," Lynch said about Nucci. "He really just took it and ran with it."
"It's not just coach Nuc," said Phil O'Hara, a 2005 graduate who was part of Raritan's first sectional title team. "He's got an army behind him."
The late Rich Dunnells, who preceded Nucci as Raritan's coach, mentored him as he quickly assembled a team that went from largely anonymous to shocking the entire state in four years.
"He coached just like he wrestled in high school," Baldi said. "It's the same enthusiasm. When he was a kid and we would have extra conditioning, it didn't matter how long the practice was. If I said, 'one more,' he was the first guy on the line with a smile, and everybody would follow him. A lot of heart."
When he arrived, Raritan didn't even have a dedicated wrestling room. The wrestlers would roll out the mats in the school cafeteria for practice, then roll them back up and store them when they were done. A heater along the wall had dents from where they would bang into it while running sprints at the end of practice.
"We might not be the most talented group, but we would outwork you," said Andriola, who was part of the first class that wrestled all four years under Nucci. "There was no one on the mat that would want to face us after six minutes, and that's the attitude we brought."
It culminated in a seismic upset that signaled Raritan was going to be a serious contender on the state level. A year after getting trampled by perennial power Delaware Valley by 44 points, the Rockets stunned the Terriers 30-28 in the 2004 Central Jersey Group 2 final. It was the first sectional title in Raritan history, and it kickstarted a 20-year rivalry between the programs that will have its latest installment on Feb. 2.
"They called it the biggest upset in state sectional history," Andriola said.
A year after the Rockets stunned Delaware Valley, the school built a dedicated wrestling room. It's now named after Dunnells, who died from cancer in 2020.
More Than a Coach
For every story of Nucci coaching his wrestlers to success on the mat, there are as many stories from alumni Nucci helped through hard times long after their careers ended.
"Coach Nuc saved my life," O'Hara said. "I was in a lot of trouble and I didn't know where to turn. I think the reason why I reached out to him was because when I was in the program, everything was all right. And I was just trying to get back to all right."
O'Hara was 26 when he faced serious addiction issues. Nucci was there to support him on his journey to sobriety.
"He's been there for my losses off the mat with my life at rock bottom, and he's been there for my best," O'Hara said. "He performed my wedding ceremony. I think he's married like four or five of his wrestlers from the church of the internet. And I couldn't think of anyone else to perform that ceremony but him. He's like my dad."
Nucci works with O'Hara as the president of Hazlet's Hope Network, which was formed in 2017 to help those struggling with substance abuse. It began with assisting members of the Raritan community but has expanded to help others throughout the Bayshore area and beyond. Baldi said he sent some former Toms River wrestlers to get help.
Nucci is the type of coach who will get a phone call at 2 a.m. from a wrestler he hasn't heard from in 10 years and jump into action to help.
"I know that he cares about us," O'Hara said. "To this day at 36 years old, if he asked me to run through a wall for him, I'd run through a wall."
"At the end of the day, Nuc is a great man and a great leader," Andriola said. "He didn't just teach us how to wrestle. He taught us how to be adults and men for the rest of our lives. He brought together a family culture."
That family culture involved his own family. Nucci's parents have been fixtures at matches for 20-plus years and were there to share the moment with him on Friday night. Two of his daughters also hugged him tight when he was honored ahead of the match with Wall.
Part of what has made Raritan a perennial success was creating a home mat advantage by packing the gym dubbed "The Launch Pad."
The spectacle of a big match with only the center mat illuminated and the team warming up to AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" made a generation of Hazlet kids yearn for the day when it would be their turn out there. A student section rhythmically clapping while chanting "Green Machine" makes it one of the more intimidating atmospheres for opponents in the Shore.
"I remember being five, six years old sitting on the edge of the mat watching guys like Dan and Dave Seidenberg and Chris Van Fechtmann wrestle," A.J. Erven said. "I always wanted to be running the circle with the one light on and 'Thunderstruck' on. You always wanted that feeling growing up."
"To this day, I'll say one of the best atmospheres to wrestle in is 'The Launch Pad,'" Seidenberg said.
It was an especially charged scene on Friday night after Nucci entered through a tunnel of alumni chanting "Green Machine" while shaking hands down the line. He then gave a short speech after receiving an ovation from the crowd.
The DNA of Nucci's blue-collar program was on full display in the win over Wall. Jaidan Torres survived nearly being pinned in some wild scrambles to get a pin himself at 106, Nick Sheldrick scored a reversal in the final seconds for a 9-8 win at 113, Logan Acevedo won 2-1 in an overtime tiebreaker at 165, and Ryan Settle blew the roof off with a pin at 190 to seal the win.
"It was great being able to make (Nucci) proud for his last time here," Settle said.
"After all this buildup, I definitely think we needed to win," said senior star Zach Reilley, who finished fifth in the state at 138 last year. "The town of Hazlet is a small community, but it feels like family. It was great to see all the alumni back. It shows this is more than just wrestling."
While Nucci is stepping down as the high school coach, he's not stepping away from the sport. He will be the coach at Hazlet Middle School, where he will be joined by longtime assistant Allen Mui to prepare the latest models for the assembly line of "The Green Machine."
Nucci will need to find a way to throttle it down, considering he's the type of coach who's thinking in April about how to get an edge in a dual meet scheduled for the following February.
"April? Try March right after Atlantic City, when you start crunching your lineup the next day," he said before laughing. "Now I'm going to just be able to relax and live in the present a little bit. And hopefully I enjoy it."