Winning a state championship never gets old for Nutley veteran softball coach Luann Zullo.
After all, the respected coach had won a state title at West Essex, before moving on to Nutley a decade ago.
And after defeating West Morris, 2-1, last Friday in thrilling fashion on a two-out, two-run double by Emily Holden in the bottom of the eighth inning, Zullo has now captured three NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III titles with the Maroon Raiders.
However, none was more dramatic or thrilling than this year’s.
Upstart West Morris was just one out away from knocking off the top-seeded Maroon Raiders on their home field in the sectional title game when the Maroon Raiders caught some extra inning lightning.
First, winning pitcher Carly Anderson singled to get the rally started. Then the Raiders’ other senior, Jenna Saporito, worked out a walk after getting two strikes.
Up stepped Holden with the tying and winning runs on base.
“It was amazing,” Zullo said. “She has such a love for the game. To see the smile on her face after she hit the ball was wonderful. She’s just a fantastic kid and I couldn’t have been happier for her. I know Emily wanted to win it for Carly and Jenna.”
Anderson did her part on the mound, allowing no runs through seven innings. When West Morris scored a run in the top of the extra frame, it became the first run that Anderson had surrendered in more than three weeks.
“At that moment, we were a little tight and tense,” Zullo said. “But we never thought the game was over. We had our batters coming up. I told them that we had to score at least one run to keep playing and we needed two to celebrate. It couldn’t have been more exciting. We had a packed house. We had our two seniors on base. I couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
With the win, the Maroon Raiders (24- 7) were slated to face Sparta in the overall Group III semifinals Tuesday afternoon afte was slated to be played at Caldwell College.
A win there and the Maroon Raiders were headed back to the softball smorgasbord known as Toms River for the overall Group III championship game on Saturday.
“We talked to them about creating moments,” Zullo said. “We had a moment here that they will talk about forever. They’ll talk about that moment for the rest of their lives. But there are other moments to be made. I told them to enjoy this one, to have the time of their lives.”
Zullo knew that there was some level of pressure on the Maroon Raiders, entering the state tournament as the top seed in the North 2, Group III bracket.
“I would much rather be the underdog,” Zullo said. “But I understood we had the power points and the ranking to be the top seed, so it’s kind of expected. It’s so much more difficult to come by than people realize. The kids knew what was at stake. This group was always relaxed, having fun.”
Maybe they take on the personality of their never-say- care senior leader, who knew what it was like to be clutch in winning a basketball state sectional title in March. Anderson is living the life of Riley these days, earning state titles in two sports and playing major roles on both teams.
Anderson allowed just three hits in the state sectional title game, striking out six and walking just one. She also had two hits and scored the game-tying run on Holden’s clutch double.
Now, the Maroon Raiders are a win away from going back to the ultimate and creating yet another moment that will last a lifetime.
“It really is amazing,” Zullo said. “No one was talking about us all year. I don’t know if a lot of others would have believed this could happen. But the kids all did. They believed it.”
And Zullo has another state sectional title, the third in six years.
“It’s very hard to come by,” Zullo said. “That’s why this one is very special. It’s a very special group of girls. They deserve this.”
Sparta is next.
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”