By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When the high school girls’ soccer season began in earnest last August, Nutley High School head coach Mike DiPiano didn’t know what the future held.
After all, the Maroon Raiders graduated nine seniors from last year’s team that won 18 games and advanced to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III semifinals.
“I couldn’t let the kids know that I had doubts,” said DiPiano, who began his third season at Nutley. “I did have concerns. We graduated four defensive starters and a goaltender. I knew that we had goal scorers in (Victoria) Kealy and (Zoe) Steck, but I wondered could they score enough for us to win.”
No one could have ever imagined what would transpire in a span of just two months. The uncertainty of August became a championship run in November.
Although the season ended Friday with a tough loss to Roxbury in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III championship game, the Maroon Raiders can walk away with their collective heads held high.
“We went further than any other team in school history,” said DiPiano, noting that the Maroon Raiders had never participated in a state sectional title game before Friday. “They all bought in and came together. They had sleepovers and movie nights. They had cookiebaking sessions, went pumpkin picking, apple picking and go-cart racing. They really made this team into a family. It was great to see.”
The Maroon Raiders finished the season 16-6, but three of those wins came in the state tournament, including a clutch win over West Morris in the sectional semifinals. West Morris was the team that eliminated the Maroon Raiders from the state tournament a year ago.
The team featured standout returnees in forwards Kealy (24 goals and 16 assists) and Steck (17 goals, 13 assists). Everything the Maroon Raiders did offensively was centered around the play of the two standouts.
Kealy, headed for Rider University on a scholarship, was once a defender at Nutley, but was moved up front and her entire life changed.
“She led by example,” DiPiano said of Kealy. “She played out of position as a freshman defender on a team that won three games. She did whatever we asked of her and did a great job as a leader.”
More importantly, Kealy leaves Nutley girls’ soccer with a legacy as the school’s all-time leading goal scorer, tallying an astounding 79 goals during her brilliant career.
“There were a lot of tears Friday and that’s understandable,” DiPiano said. “It was a tough day. But I let her know that she was one of the reasons why we were able to turn this thing around. She really had a great career.”
Kealy became the program’s second NCAA Division I player over the last three years, joining Natalie Melillo, who is at Troy University in Alabama and scored four goals there as a freshman this season.
“We feel we have players coming out of this program who can play at the next level,” DiPiano said.
When the time comes, Steck will become a major college player as well. Only a sophomore, Steck is already getting attention from Division I schools.
“We’re proud of that,” DiPiano said.
However, DiPiano should be most proud of the way his players developed this season.
When the season began, he had a goalkeeper who hadn’t played competitively in almost four years and had a host of underclassmen playing major roles in the defensive back line.
But junior Sarah Roselli emerged as the team’s goalkeeper, replacing last year’s Observer Co-Female Athlete of the Year Grace Montgomery. Roselli, who played tennis her first two years of high school, didn’t receive medical clearance to play soccer after suffering concussions as a middle school player, but DiPiano knew that Roselli could handle the responsibilities if healthy.
“I saw her play when she was younger and I knew if she could play, she would do fine,” DiPiano said.
Lauren Holden is a freshman who was given the responsibilities of being the team’s sweeper.
“I also saw her play when she was younger,” DiPiano said. “She comes from an athletic family (sister Emily is Nutley’s ace pitcher during softball season). Lauren is just a good soccer player. I knew she wouldn’t play like a freshman.”
Darby Fischer is a sophomore who became the team’s stopper.
“She was very tough,” DiPiano said. “Darby and Lauren Holden kept us together.”
Freshman Jela Small played both at defender and in the midfield.
“She’s a dynamic player,” DiPiano said. “She has a bright future.”
Senior Julie Fredericks, a first-year varsity starter, junior Melissa Alvarez and sophomore Angeli Bossibaly all did great jobs assisting the defensive backline that was once a question mark and evolved into the team’s strength.
Sophomore Jennifer Callaghan became a good ball distributor in the midfield. Senior Kaitlyn Salisbury and junior Sam Chimento were also major contributors in the midfield, along with Sarah Grueter and Maise Jelley.
They all molded well with the immense talents of Kealy and Steck up front, as potent a 1-2 scoring attack that could be found in northern New Jersey.
While the Maroon Raiders graduate a host of seniors, especially All-State candidate Kealy, the prospects look very good for the years to come, especially with Steck returning for two more soccer seasons.
“This team was a huge success story for the program, for the school and for the community,” DiPiano said. “I’m very proud of them. We won one state game two years ago, two last year and three this year. We’re moving in the right direction.”
If the progression remains the way it has been over the first three years of DiPiano’s regime, then a fourth win in the state playoffs should finally mean a state sectional title in 2015.