By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Most high school soccer teams like to take the defensive approach: protecting their own goal at all costs and hoping for the chance to get a score here and there.
That’s certainly not the thought process with the Nutley High School girls’ soccer team and second-year head coach Mike DiPiano.
“We were a 4-4-2 attack, but now we’re going with a 4-3-3 lineup, because we have so many dynamic scorers,” said DiPiano, who changed the entire outlook of the program last year, helping the Maroon Raiders win 14 games. “We decided to go after goals and let the other teams come after us. It’s a more exciting style of play.”
It’s also enabled DiPiano to upgrade the Maroon Raiders’ schedule this season, facing bigger schools with huge soccer reputations like Bridgewater- Raritan, Cranford, Glen Ridge and even Kearny this season. The Maroon Raiders played Bridgewater-Raritan, the state’s No. 11-ranked team, to a 1-1 draw last Thursday.
“The girls are really stepping it up and playing at a high level,” DiPiano said.
You can’t argue with the results. The Maroon Raiders own an unbeaten 5-0-1 record and are scoring goals in bunches.
“We’re shooting to take it to a whole new level this year,” DiPiano said. “Especially when it comes time for the (Essex) county tournament. We’ve set our sights on playing exciting, winning soccer and we’re hoping to have that.”
When DiPiano took the head coaching position last year, the Maroon Raiders were in a rut, having won just four games in 2011 and three in 2010. But DiPiano, taking a page from the old school method he learned being around the soccer program at St. Benedict’s Prep, turned the tide last season and has continued that ascent this season.
“I came in with a three-year plan and things just skyrocketed last year,” DiPiano said. “People thought we overachieved, but it was just taking advantage of the team we had.”
The Maroon Raiders certainly have enough fire power up front, thus causing the change in the offensive alignment.
“It’s unbelievable, but I think we have three girls who have a chance to all score 30 goals this season,” DiPiano said.
Senior Natalie Melillo, who had 29 goals last year, tops in Essex County, has returned and has picked up from where she left off last season. In just six games, Melillo has eight goals and eight assists. Melillo has already given a verbal commitment to attend Troy University in Alabama next fall.
“She’s a dynamic scorer,” DiPiano said. “She has a chance to break our school scoring record this year.”
Junior Victoria Kealy is another of those top-flight scorers. Kealy moved from center midfield, where she played last year, to forward without a glitch, scoring a team-high 12 goals thus far.
“She’s an excellent player and she’s already getting looks from colleges like American and Monmouth,” DiPiano said.
The third goal getter is freshman Zoe Steck, who has 11 goals and nine assists in her first six high school varsity matches.
“She has a chance to break all the school records by the time she’s done,” DiPiano said. “She’s been unbelievable.”
Steck is already playing with the New Jersey state and regional U-14 teams.
“The goals they have been scoring have been incredible,” DiPiano said. “They’re so fast. They take two passes and they’re gone.”
With an offensive attack such as that, it makes it easier for the rest of the Maroon Raiders.
DiPiano has been utilizing two girls in goal, namely seniors Meghan Montgomery and basketball standout Blair Watson. The two have been splitting time evenly thus far.
Senior captain Brittany Currie has returned to her spot at sweeper. Currie, who is also a fine softball and basketball player, is a staple on the defense.
“She’s a smart player who is very aggressive,” DiPiano said. “She’s our leader in the back.”
Senior Allyson Zeiher returns to the stopper position she held a year ago.
The other defenders are seniors Grace Montgomery, Meghan’s twin sister, and Katherine Balitsos. It means that three Montgomery family members play soccer at Nutley, as younger brother Will is on the boys’ team.
“They’re a very athletic family,” DiPiano said.
Grace Montgomery is another three-sport athlete, participating in basketball and track and field.
The center midfielder is senior Sherein Abdelhady, who has collected two goals and three assists so far.
“Everything we do goes through Sherein,” DiPiano said. “She’s the motor and the heart of the team. She’s the unsung hero. She does a great job distributing the ball.”
Seniors Samantha Haddock and Kelly Huegel are the other midfielders.
“All three midfielders played the same position last year,” DiPiano said. “We are very experienced.”
Not to mention talented.
“I think we have a shot to do good things this year,” DiPiano said. “I really do. I think if you have a shot with a team like this, you take that shot and go for it. I’d like to take a run at the state (NJSIAA North Section 2, Group III) and use the county as a stepping stone for the states. But we’re going to score goals and we’re letting the opponents to decide how they can handle that. It’s a very difficult task to try to defend us.”
As evidenced by the gaudy goal totals the Maroon Raiders have already compiled this season.