By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
The Nutley High School girls’ soccer team was struggling in recent years, having won just a total of eight games over the last two seasons.
Enter Mike DiPiano. DiPiano, who had his background in soccer from his alma mater, St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, was given the girls’ head coaching position earlier this year.
“I knew that work needed to be done,” said DiPiano, whose older brother, Frank, is the Nutley head wrestling coach and assistant with the boys’ soccer team. “I knew where I wanted to go with the program. After meeting the girls, I set some pretty big goals. I told them that they could reach double digits in wins and win in the county and state playoffs.”
That idea was merely unfathomable, considering that the Maroon Raiders were 4-14 last year and 4-14-4 in 2010.
“I knew a lot of the girls from softball,” said DiPiano, who serves as Nutley’s assistant softball coach as well. “I knew that there was talent there. It just had to be manipulated a little better. I made some tough decisions as to who would play where.”
DiPiano knew that the moves weren’t exactly going to make him new friends.
“But I knew Nutley was a good athletic town,” DiPiano said. “I knew that they did well in other girls’ sports. I knew that there were girls who played soccer all year round and for some of the big-time club teams in the state. I knew they played, so I was going to tap into that.”
Soon after, the Maroon Raiders started to buy into what DiPiano had to say.
“They were very supportive,” DiPiano said. “The girls set goals as well. Some set goals as simple as having a winning record. But others wanted to play for the (Super Essex Conference- Liberty Division) title. Others said that they wanted the county. But I noticed that they accepted the change, that winning four matches wasn’t going to be what we did. It wasn’t going to be easy to reach some of the goals, but they were going to give it a try.”
The results have been staggering, as the Maroon Raiders have a healthy 10-6 record this season and they’re in the hunt for the SEC Liberty Division title.
DiPiano believes that some of the turnaround took place over the summer months.
“We played in two summer leagues, one in Montclair and the other in Kearny,” DiPiano said. “The kids also organized captains’ practices on their own. They made the commitment over the summer to improve. They had to feel each other out a little to get ready for the year.
Added DiPiano, “They all worked hard. There was never any negativity involved. They all wanted to turn this around.”
In goal has been freshman Blair Watson.
“We knew we had a couple of goalkeepers, but Blair is an excellent athlete,” DiPiano said. “She’s a basketball player and will be a very good player for us in the winter. But if we wanted to do this right, we needed to make a change and Blair has been outstanding.”
Watson has recorded 110 saves in 16 games, so she has made an impact.
The sweeper back is junior Brittany Currie.
“She’s been excellent for us,” DiPiano said. “She’s learned how to defend better. She’s enabled us to change the way we played, while we could focus on other things.”
The sweeper is junior Allyson Zeiher.
“She’s one of our unsung heroes,” DiPiano said. “She cleans things up well back there. The defenders have been the anchors to the team.”
Also in the backline are senior Maria Cialella and junior Grace Montgomery.
“Grace was the stopper last year, but we moved her to left back and she’s been marking opponents very well,” DiPiano said.
The midfield has depth and talent. Sophomore Victoria Kealey leads the way at center midfielder. Kealey has scored 14 goals and has 10 assists.
“She started as a freshman last year,” DiPiano said. “She’s a natural forward, but we feel she does a better job attacking from the midfield. She’s done an excellent job scoring and distributing.”
Junior Sherein Avdelhady is another quality midfielder. Avdelhady has six goals and four assists.
“She works extremely hard,” DiPiano said of Avdelhady. “She’s done a good job of reading when to attack and when to defend.”
The other midfielders are juniors Samantha Haddock and Kelly Huegel and senior Dominique Melillo.
“I put a lot on them to be able to get up and attack, as well as getting back to defend,” DiPiano said. “But they’re all good athletes and able to help each other. It also helps to have depth there in case we have someone who needs a breather.”
The forward line is extremely talented.
Junior Natalie Melillo, Dominique’s younger sister, is the Maroon Raiders’ striker. Melillo leads all of Essex County with 19 goals and 10 assists.
“I knew she was a very good player and knew she could score, but she’s displayed excellent balance in being able to score and distribute,” DiPiano said. “She’s a dynamic finisher and it really helps to have that kind of scoring threat. You can’t teach someone to finish the way Natalie does.”
The other forward slot is shared by senior Nina Lopomo, who has four goals and four assists, and junior Julia Seremba, who has two goals and four assists.
If there is one fact that stands out about the Maroon Raiders, it’s their youth.
“We have basically only one senior starting,” DiPiano said. “The future is very bright. We also have some good girls on the freshman team that will help us in the future.”
Other key contributors include senior defenders Carly Costa and Tori D’Amico.
“They’ve done a good job coming off the bench,” DiPiano said.
The Maroon Raiders have some tough games ahead, but winning 10 games already with a program that won only eight games entirely over the last two years is saying something.
“Every game from this point on is a big game for us,” DiPiano said. “I want the girls to believe that we can bring the program back to the way it used to be. We truly think we can take this to another level.”
The Maroon Raiders might get a home game in the upcoming NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group IV playoffs.
“That would be a great reward,” DiPiano said. “I thought if we got to doubledigit wins, I would call the season a success. But it’s not over yet.”
Far from it. The Maroon Raiders have bigger goals in mind.