By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
On paper, it looked like the biggest rebuilding project in Nutley High School softball coach Luann Zullo’s career.
“We have a very young team,” Zullo said. “We only have two seniors. We also have two juniors, two sophomores and the rest are freshmen. It’s definitely our youngest team. I didn’t know what to expect.”
But six games into the 2013 season, the Maroon Raiders have a 4-2 record _ with both losses coming by a single run to Livingston and Governor Livingston of Berkeley Heights.
“They have shown that they can handle the pressure and they’ve shown that they have some fight in them,” Zullo said after the Maroon Raiders dropped a 7-6 decision to Governor Livingston in GL’s tournament finale last Sunday. “One thing I can say is that they like to compete.”
Zullo saw signs of that in a preseason scrimmage in Florida against Paramus.
“Paramus scored five runs in one inning and we came right back and scored seven,” Zullo said. “That showed to me that they have some fight in them. We may suffer through some growing pains this season, but they’re not going to give up.”
On Sunday, the Maroon Raiders defeated Madison, 5-2, early in the morning, then had to wait around for six hours to face Gov. Livingston in the title game.
“It was a long and tiring day for all of us,” Zullo said. “But even in the final game, we kept coming back and kept fighting. If that’s the way the season is going to go, then I’m all for it. I like their fight. It’s what I like most. They go down and fight back. We have some good senior leadership teaching the freshmen what they should do. That’s a good sign.”
Leading the way for the Maroon Raiders is sophomore pitcher Carly Anderson, who was the starter at second base last season.
“Carly is our leadoff hitter and currently leads us in hitting,” Zullo said. “She’s a great athlete who can play anywhere. She’s been throwing the ball well (and had 15 strikeouts in the win over Madison). She hasn’t pitched a lot in her career. She’s caught, played second base, played shortstop.
She’s comfortable anywhere, but she’s our pitcher.”
Senior Victoria Malanga is the returning starter at catcher. Malanga has been behind the dish for all four years of varsity for Nutley.
“She was our starter at catcher when we won the (NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III) state sectional (in 2010),” Zullo said. “She’s doing very well back there again this year.”
Senior Heather Williams is the returning starter at first base.
“Heather has been the starter there for the last two years,” Zullo said. “Victoria and Heather are two strong personalities who have been embracing the young players and making them feel comfortable. They’re both very nice girls and hard workers who set the example and lead by example. They’re bringing the whole group together and I like that.”
Sophomore Jenna Saporito, who served as the Maroon Raiders’ designated player last year, has become the starter at second base with Anderson now toeing the rubber.
Stefanie Ziemer is the first of the talented Nutley freshmen. Ziemer is the starter at shortstop.
“She’s a tough kid,” Zullo said. “She’s a tiny, little thing, but she’s afraid of nothing. She’s getting the job done.”
Another freshman, Danielle Pomponio, is the third baseman.
“She’s doing a great job,” Zullo said of Pomponio. “She came to us as a catcher, but we converted her to a third baseman.”
Another frosh, Alanis Concepcion, is the starter in left field.
“She has the best arm on the team,” Zullo said. “She’s very athletic and has been playing her whole life.”
Junior Brittany Currie has moved over from right field to centerfield.
“She covers a lot of ground and is not afraid to leave her feet to go after the ball,” Zullo said.
Junior Morgan Gualtieri, who was a fine libero for the girls’ volleyball team in the fall, is the starting right fielder, where she played last year.
“We have only three returning starters in the position they played last year,” Zullo said, referring to Malanga, Williams and Gualtieri.
Two freshmen, Breanna DeMaio and Emily Holder, will share the designated player role and yet another freshman, Cassie Angelo, is the team’s prime pinchrunner.
“We lost a lot of people, but these girls have played a lot together,” Zullo said. “With the younger players, I love to see the competition for playing time. Over the last few years, we had so many returning players that there weren’t a lot of chances for others to play. But now, I’m able to teach and coach again. It’s really a breath of fresh air. I can get into the grass roots of coaching.”
So while others might have thought this season to be a rebuilding campaign, Zullo’s not so sure anymore.
“I see a lot of fire in this team’s eyes,” Zullo said. “And that’s nice. They’re coming out to play. If you would have asked me coming into the season if I would take 4-2 after six games and I would have been pleased. But I like what I see right now. This is a team of fighters that is only going to get better as the season moves on.”
And it could mean winning as always come June for the Nutley softball program.