By Jim Hague
After a successful career as the head girls’ volleyball coach at Cedar Grove High School, Cristina Nicastro decided it was time for a change.
So Nicastro took a similar position at Nutley High School.
“It was very difficult to leave,” Nicastro said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better team. The parents, the administration, the community were all great. It was very hard to walk away from a program that I helped to build. We were pretty strong and I was looking forward to continuing with that.”
But last year, Nicastro took a job as a permanent substitute teacher at Nutley and things changed.
“I’m in the process of getting a certification to become an English teacher,” Nicastro said. “I started subbing in Nutley and I found it to be so motivating.” In fact, part of the motivation came from hearing the voice of athletic director Joe Piro.
“I listened to him on the loud speaker making the daily announcements and I was so impressed,” Nicastro said. “I sought him out in the building and talked to him. I just wanted to talk to him about sports. I wasn’t thinking about leaving Cedar Grove at the time, but I guess through that exchange, things progressed.”
The 28-year-old Nicastro, a former standout volleyball player at Verona and later St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, knew then that she wanted to move on to Nutley. In fact, she already had moved into the township.
“It was a perfect fit for me as a coach,” Nicastro said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better situation.”
Nicastro was introduced by Piro to the parents and the team in May and the response was tremendous.
“The turnout was amazing,” Nicastro said. “It was more than I expected. In fact, it was overwhelming. From that moment on, they were all behind me.”
Some 40 prospective volleyball players attended the initial meeting. Nicastro never had those numbers at Cedar Grove.
Nicastro then enrolled her new team in the Bloomfield summer league.
“It was just to get a feel of what we had,” Nicastro said. “We are also having open gyms every Tuesday night. I’m overwhelmed with the interest. The more girls that we have interested, the better the program can be. I am very pleased with the turnout.”
Nicastro and her assistant coach Jenna Dwyer, a Nutley product, have been monitoring the progress of her players.
“We have a lot of volleyball players in the district,” Nicastro said. “I want to be able to establish a winning volleyball culture in Nutley. I love the game and know the game. I feel like I can establish that in Nutley.”
Nicastro said that the open gym has featured girls who never played volleyball before to the returning players. The competitive Bloomfield league has been limited to those who played in the program last year.
“But the girls are so interested,” Nicastro said. “They’re out on the court and trying hard. It’s great. It’s been a little time consuming, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Nicastro only has two returning starters and six returning players from last year’s Nutley team that posted a 10-6 record.
“We’re changing everything,” Nicastro said. “We’ve introduced all new rotations. The girls seem to be very happy and I’m happy with their performance. I would like them to understand that volleyball is a mental sport. We are trying to simplify everything.”
Nicastro believes that the Maroon Raiders will have to be a defensive-minded squad this season.
“From what I’ve seen, we have to be a defensive team, so the main focus will be to get in the swing defensively,” Nicastro said. “If we focus on defense, I think it can pay off in the fall. We’re setting the tone for a very successful season.”
Nicastro said that she comes from a family that is totally involved in sports.
“My family is so involved,” Nicastro said. “My father comes to everything. My brother is now so ingrained in volleyball that he offers me tips. They are my biggest supporters. They’ll be at all the matches.”
Nicastro is excited about her opportunity at Nutley.
“I think it’s something that is very fitting,” Nicastro said. “It all fits well. Nutley is a great community with great people. I am looking to make my home here. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”