Although she’s only a junior, Zoe Steck has inherited a lot of the leadership responsibilities on the Nutley High School girls’ soccer team.
“I don’t think of it that it’s any added pressure,” Steck said. “I like the responsibility. I like to think I thrive under pressure. I knew I had to be the one to do it. I never felt like I was above anyone else, but we lost Victoria Kealy (to graduation and playing soccer at Rider). We had a good chunk of our team coming back this year and we all wanted to do what we did last year, so it was natural that I could help to keep things going.”
Nutley girls’ soccer head coach Mike DiPiano had no doubts that he was going to name Steck as the team captain.
“I like to have a junior as a captain,” DiPiano said. “She knows that so much of the focus is going to be on her. She leads by example, but she also leads with her actions and her mouth if need be. She has the ability to tell the others what to do.”
Steck cherishes the idea that she is the team captain.
“I was so happy that I was made the captain,” Steck said. “It showed the belief and the amount of faith that he (DiPiano) had in me. It’s more than just wearing an armband during games. I still go about games the same way, but there are other responsibilities off the field.”
It also helps that Steck is incredibly gifted and talented as a soccer player.
“She’s doing a great job leading and she’s doing a great job scoring,” DiPiano said. “She scores goals that only a handful of girls in the state can score. She puts the ball on to her left foot and puts it hard into the back of the net. She scores with her right foot. There aren’t many players who can do that. She also can do it from anywhere on the field, 35 yards and in.”
And as dangerous of a scorer Steck is, she’s also looking to get others involved.
“She’s making everyone better,” DiPiano said. “I tell the others to be alert when Zoe has the ball, because it could come their way. I tell them don’t run away from it. She’s a forward, but she’s coming back a lot of times to get the ball and create for others.”
Steck is continuing her ascent toward becoming the all-time leading goal scorer in Maroon Raider history, breaking the mark set last year by Kealy.
This year, Steck has 15 goals and six assists. She probably won’t reach the heights she amassed when she was a freshman two years ago, when she found the net 27 times, but the chances to score this year are fewer because of the competition in the Super Essex Conference and the way teams choose to defend Steck.
“When she was a freshman, people didn’t know who she was,” DiPiano said. “All she had to do was stay away from defenders and she would get goals. Now, she’s by herself and there are two or three girls marking her. She’s done a very good job of not getting frustrated and just playing her game.”
Last week, Steck had two goals and an assist against Caldwell, had a goal and an assist against West Essex and had the three-goal hat trick against Verona.
Steck would have had more goals, but the weather gods weren’t helping. Steck had three goals in the original game against West Essex last week, but heavy rain came before the match reached halftime, postponing the game for a day, forcing the game to be replayed in its entirety a day later. So Steck lost two goals to the rains, because she scored one goal a day later in the win over West Essex.
“I was so upset about that,” Steck said. “We were playing so well the first day. I was happy that we came back and won the next day, but it was upsetting that I lost those goals. But I’m all for the team and I’m glad we came out on top.”
For her efforts, Steck has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
DiPiano loves singing Steck’s praises.
“We’re lucky to have a girl like her,” DiPiano said. “She does everything for us.”
Steck credits her teammates for getting her the ball in good scoring position.
“There’s always pressure on the one who has to take the shot, but I feel comfortable with my teammates,” Steck said. “It helps to take the pressure off of me. I felt strong coming into the season with the freshmen we had coming in. We’ve come together well. We’re working hard as a team.”
The Maroon Raiders currently have a 9-7 record as they prepare to face Bloomfield in the opening round of the Essex County Tournament. Nutley is the fifth seed in the tourney.
“I don’t care what our record is,” said DiPiano, whose team has lost four games in overtime this season, twice to Livingston. “I don’t think anyone wants to play us, either in the county tournament or in the states (the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III playoffs upcoming). We could be dangerous.”
And it helps having Steck as his striker.
“I think she’s getting hot at the right time,” DiPiano said of her six-goal barrage in the past week. “It certainly helps us a great deal.”
Although Steck is still only a junior, she already has her future mapped out. She has already accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Connecticut and will head to Storrs in two years to continue her soccer career there.
Steck is pleased to have the decision about college out of the way.
“It’s a huge load off my shoulders,” Steck said. “The whole college thing was very stressful. Last year was the key recruiting year. I had to deal with it with my club team as well. It was crazy for a while.”
DiPiano said that Steck was receiving offers when she was a freshman.
“For a 15-year-old girl to be pulled in all different directions, it was tough,” DiPiano said. “I think she handled it well. She had to make sure that UConn was the right fit and it was. If you’re that good, then it’s a great decision to come out early and make the commitment.”
“Once I figured out where I wanted to go, I felt more relaxed,” Steck said. “It was a perfect situation for me. I’m happy to be going to UConn.”
It doesn’t hurt that UConn is currently ranked No. 15 in the entire country.
“I think it will be great for me,” Steck said. “Right now, I honestly have no idea what I would want to major in there. There are so many opportunities for me to do what I want to do.”
For now, Steck is enjoying her junior year as the leader of the Maroon Raiders.
“It’s kind of cool that people look at us as underdogs this year,” Steck said. “We’re working hard to see how we can beat the teams that beat us earlier. No one thinks we stand a chance. I’m hopeful that we can pull some upsets.”
DiPiano is obviously pleased.
“She’s doing what we expected of her,” DiPiano said. “I never have to worry about Zoe. She does things that we ask and things we don’t ask. She just wants to score. She’s looking to score more in practice. She has that kind of intensity and she’s done a great job leading the team.”
That’s all any coach could ask for.
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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.”