By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Nutley High School girls’ soccer coach Mike DiPiano knew that the competition would get much tougher in the second half of the current season.
“I knew that teams would be packing it in on us defensively,” DiPiano said. “We knew that people would try to knock us around. It was all about us staying composed.”
It also meant that the Maroon Raiders had to play tougher defensively.
“I think we’re still playing the same way that we did early in the season,” DiPiano said. “It’s just that our defense has gotten better. We’re playing a little better soccer. We knew that this could happen when you’re playing teams a second time. We still have the dynamic scoring up front, but our defense is much stronger.”
The Maroon Raiders are getting solid play from defensive whiz Brittany Currie along the back line.
“She’s doing a great job of leading and keeping everyone composed,” DiPiano said.
The other defenders are all seniors, so that experience helps. Grace Montgomery, Katherine Calitsos and Alyson Zeiher are all steady defenders, giving the Maroon Raiders a solid line of defense.
Junior Rachel Nichols has been a godsend of late. Nichols stepped into the starting role at goalkeeper when starter Meghan Montgomery dislocated her thumb. Montgomery will be out of action for another two weeks, so Nichols has to lead the way – and she has, collecting two shutouts among her three victories in goal.
“Rachel has done a fantastic job in goal,” DiPiano said. “The girls in front of her are making her job much easier, but she’s been steady.”
The result: A historic moment in Nutley girls’ soccer history. For the first time ever, the Nutley girls’ soccer program has captured a league championship. They clinched the Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division championship last week.
“It’s a really big deal,” said DiPiano, who inherited the Nutley program after the Maroon Raiders posted a 4-17 record just three seasons ago. “It’s the first time in the school’s history that the girls’ team won a league championship. It means a lot to the girls.”
The Maroon Raiders were ranked 19th in the state last week, before falling to Livingston in the Essex County Tournament semifinals, falling to 11-1-1 overall.
“I am surprised how fast we turned things around,” DiPiano said. “It’s a testament to the girls. They bought into the change in philosophy and they trusted me. They stepped up the improvement process with their hard work.”
DiPiano still has three forward players on track to be among the state’s leading scorers.
Freshman Zoe Stack has scored 20 goals. Victoria Kealy has added 18 goals and Natalie Melillo has knocked in 12 goals and added an outstanding 18 assists.
They’re on pace to score 25 goals each this season.
“That would be an amazing accomplishment,” DiPiano said.
DiPiano just enjoys the camaraderie on the entire team.
“It’s a great group, a special group,” DiPiano said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime group. They do everything together. They have breakfast together. They went apple and pumpkin picking together. They go to watch the boys’ games together.”
DiPiano knew that he had a close-knit contingent last week, when the entire team went to watch a recreation under-9 girls’ soccer game.
“They were all there together, cheering on the little ones,” DiPiano said. “That shows how special they really are.”
The Maroon Raiders still have four regular season games remaining. Their standing in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III bracket is still at stake.
“We want to get as many home games in Nutley for the state tournament as possible,” said DiPiano. “We want to play in Nutley as long as we can. That’s what we’re shooting for.”
For now, the Maroon Raiders achieved a slice of history. A league championship can now be added to the banner on the wall of the school’s gymnasium.
“The only thing there is a county championship in 1991,” DiPiano said. “So it will be nice to add the league championship to the banner.”
And it’s a title that no one can ever take away. It will remain there through the ages for posterity, the first-ever league champion in girls’ soccer. Quite an achievement indeed.