‘Dig Pink’ event big moment for Nutley volleyball

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Cristina Nicastro took over the Nutley High School girls’ volleyball program this fall and wanted to have the Maroon Raiders get involved with a community- related project during the season.

For the prior three years, while she was the head coach at Cedar Grove, Nicastro organized a “Dig Pink” fundraiser, where all of the proceeds of the event would go to the Side- Out Foundation, a group of volleyball teams on the high school, college and club levels that raise money for breast cancer awareness and research.

“I wanted to do the same thing here in Nutley,” said Nicastro, who just recently completed her first season with the Maroon Raiders. “Everyone was so supportive. The school’s administration, the kids, especially the parents, all got behind this cause.”

So as the season wound down, the Maroon Raiders played host to Bloomfield and held their first-ever “Dig Pink” fundraiser, where anyone and everyone was asked to don pink clothes and reach into their pockets to help the worthy cause.

“As soon as someone walked into the gym, there was pink everywhere,” Nicastro said. “It really was amazing. It was truly a ‘Pink- Out.’”

The parents made baked goods to be sold that day. The players were at the gym all day prior to the match decorating the gym and making the place pink and festive. “

Our players made paper volleyballs with their names on it, asking for a donation,” Nicastro said. “We probably made 1,000 paper volleyballs. It was really nice.”

The Third Half Club of Nutley, an athletic support group comprised of Nutley alumni, donated the money to purchase the pink T-shirts that the players wore.

“We also asked everyone there to wear something pink,” Nicastro said. “It really was a special night.”

More importantly, the Maroon Raiders managed to raise $3,000 for their efforts, one of the top schools in the “Dig Pink” fundraiser nationwide

And to make the evening complete, the Maroon Raiders won the match against Bloomfield, avenging a defeat earlier in the season.

“Next year, it will be bigger and better,” Nicastro said. “Hardly anyone knew about it this year. Hopefully, we will turn it into a Nutley volleyball tradition, a community event for years to come.”

The Maroon Raiders completed the first year of the Nicastro era with an 11-11 record. The new coach had hoped for better results, but after all, as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

“I’m happy we got to .500,” Nicastro said. “We had a rough start and it was hard to come back from it.”

The Maroon Raiders dropped their first four matches this season, putting them in a hole that was difficult to climb out of.

“We were 0-4, but it was so frustrating, because we were losing games in three sets and losing by two or three points,” Nicastro said. “We were so close, right there in every single game.”

The Maroon Raiders had a chance to upset perennially state-ranked power Livingston in the opening weeks, but fell to a hard defeat.

“I think that was all part of the growing pains,” Nicastro said. “The girls were getting to know me and I was getting to know them. It was tough for a while. But then, things finally clicked. The girls got used to the rotation and started beating teams left and right.”

Senior Molly Demgard was one of the top Maroon Raider performers. The outside hitter earned First Team All-Super Essex Conference honors and finished the season with an astounding 127 kills.

“She was my top returning varsity player and I really depended upon her experience,” Nicastro said. “She has a great serve and held us on the line.” Senior setter Jennifer Lohr also played a huge role.

“We relied on her to set on every single point,” Nicastro said. “We played a 5-1 formation, which meant that we were asking a lot of her. She did a phenomenal job. There were very few balls that she didn’t get to.”

Lohr had 191 service points to lead the team.

The team also relied upon senior reserves Victoria Matturro, Kristen Palermo, Abigail Gardner and Amanda Llano, who aided in the cause.

Matturro and Gardner were defensive specialists, Palermo an outside hitter and Llano a middle hitter.

“The seniors really helped to acclimate me to the program,” Nicastro said. “They were a huge help.”

Assistant coach Jenna Dwyer, a Nutley alum and former volleyball and basketball standout at the school, was also a huge help.

Junior Claudia Martin was the Maroon Raiders’ outside hitter, with twin sister Tess the opposite hitter.

“Claudia has a very unique serve who came up big for us on the back,” Nicastro said. “Tess had a big role in that she played three of the six rotations on the back row and helped us keep balls alive.”

Sophomore middle hitter Jessica Robinson had 226 digs, tops on the team.

“She was the libero once and we switched her position,” Nicastro said. “She studied hard and learned the position well. She became a great defender and was very consistent. She’s an excellent utility player.”

Sophomore Sara McEnery was another middle hitter, with good size (5-foot-10) at the net.

“We relied on her a lot,” Nicastro said of McEnery, who had 52 blocks, tops on the team.

Junior Emily Varga was the team’s reserve setter. She also spent a lot of time studying the game this year.

“She will be ready to step into that role next year as our top setter,” Nicastro said of McEnery. “I’m confident she can step into that role well.”

So the Maroon Raiders made Nicastro’s first season a successful one.

“I did consider it a very successful season,” Nicastro said. “I came in and had to make some changes. They had to understand my way of teaching the game.”

And for a change, the postseason won’t be that long.

“The girls are already talking about next season,” Nicastro said. “They’re ready to go now. They’re all excited about it and talking about it. I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

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