Nutley softball takes down No. 1 team in state

Before her team took the field last Friday afternoon against the No. 1-ranked team in the entire state of New Jersey, namely Mount St. Dominic, veteran Nutley head softball coach Luann Zullo gave the Maroon Raiders a little tidbit of advice.

“This is your opportunity to play the top team in the state,” Zullo said to her team. “This is your time to shine.”

The Maroon Raiders were also facing Kelsey Oh, the top pitcher in New Jersey, the defending Gatorade Player of the Year.

“She’s that good,” Zullo said. “We knew that the hits were going to be hard to come by. It’s funny, to us, we’re playing the Mount. We always feel like it’s a huge game.”

For anyone in Essex County, facing Mount St. Dominic should be the game on the schedule, considering that before Friday’s showdown with Nutley, Mount St. Dominic had not lost a single game within the confines of the county for three years, a collective 36 straight games.

But that all came to an end Friday, thanks to the talented left arm of pitcher Emily Holden, who fired a three-hit shutout, striking out 10, leading the Maroon Raiders to a huge 1-0 upset win over the previously ranked No. 1 team in the state.

The Maroon Raiders collected only one hit off Oh, a single by Holden, but that hit had nothing to do with the scoring.

The Maroon Raiders scored the lone run of the game when catcher Danielle Pomponio walked, then moved over to second base on Lauren Hogan’s sacrifice bunt and then scored on an error.

That was it, but it was also all that Holden would need. Holden had a great week, throwing three shutouts in five appearances. It was a busy week for the Maroon Raiders, as they played five games in three different showcases.

“She’s absolutely been battle tested,” Zullo said of Holden, who shared pitching duties last year with Observer Female Athlete of the Year Carly Anderson. “She pitched in some big situations in some key games. And she’s a competitor. She loves to play and enjoys the competition. She treated the game (Friday) like it was any other game and went after it. She knew it was going to be a dogfight against the No. 1 team in the state.”

Zullo liked the makeup of her team, even though they graduated two key players from the squad that won the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III sectional title and lost in the semifinals of the state to Sparta.

“We have a good group of seniors that have been playing together since they were in sixth grade,” Zullo said. “They enjoy each other’s company. They have a really nice climate going on. They help the younger kids. They embrace the fact that they won last year and basically want to do it again. They worked hard in the offseason to get ready. I didn’t have to do anything. They got everyone together for workouts and that has definitely helped.”

Of course, having Holden (bound for Ithaca College in the fall) returning helps immensely. Holden is a bulldog in the circle, with all the grit and determination of a grizzled veteran.

Having Pomponio back behind the plate also helps the Maroon Raiders immensely. Pomponio is a three-year starter at catcher and works well with Holden. It’s vital to have the pitcher and catcher working together on the same page and Zullo definitely has that.

“They get along very well and they complement each other as well,” Zullo said.

Hogan, a junior, has taken over for Holden as the starting first baseman.

“I’m comfortable with her as a starter,” Zullo said.

Junior Samantha Echeverria is the team’s starting second baseman.

“She literally has played all over for us,” Zullo said of Echeverria. “She’s even played pitcher and catcher. She’s been all over.”

Senior Stefanie Ziemer is the Maroon Raiders’ starting shortstop. Ziemer is another key veteran player who has been with the Nutley varsity since she’s been a freshman.

Senior Breanna DeMaio is the slick fielding third baseman. DeMaio has been a fixture at third for the Maroon Raiders since her sophomore year. Experience on the infield like that is invaluable.

The left fielder is senior Cassie Angelo, who is another three-year starter.

Alanis Concepcion is in centerfield. Concepcion was injured last year and missed most of the season, but has returned this season to anchor the outfield. The speedy Concepcion can go and get the ball in the outfield.

Sophomore Sydney Kunz, whose older brother Austin, is playing college baseball at Alvernia in Pennsylvania, is the starting right fielder.

Needless to say, it’s a good group, one that should contend once again for Essex County, Super Essex Conference and NJSIAA honors this spring.

“We can’t look at who’s coming next,” Zullo said. “We have to play each game the same way. We did what we had to do against a fantastic pitcher (Oh). We know we had our work cut out for us, but we managed to get the win. With the schedule we play, the hits will be tough.”

The Maroon Raiders now have a 6-2 record on the season. They have games against Lenape Valley, West Morris and Jackson Liberty as part of the Raritan Tournament on tap this week.

“It never gets easy,” Zullo said. “We’re just happy with the way things are going and want it to continue.”

As long as Holden is in the circle, the Maroon Raiders should be in fine shape.

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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.”