Young Nutley softball team endures rough spots

After graduating seven seniors, six of whom were starters, from her team of a year ago, including her starting pitcher and catcher, veteran Nutley High School softball coach Luann Zullo knew that the 2017 season would be a trying one.

“We’re very young and inexperienced,” said Zullo, whose team owns a 3-4 record in the early stages of the new season. “Our goal is to get better every day. Who knows what may happen? We could peak at the right time and be ready for the state tournament.”

Zullo had a similar experience in 2010, when a very young team came of age at the right time and the Maroon Raiders won the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III state sectional crown before falling to Middletown South in the overall Group III state title game in Toms River. The Maroon Raiders were the No. 10 seed in 2010, yet managed to finish their season with the state’s best in Toms River.

“We’re aware that it can happen,” Zullo said when reminded of that miraculous season seven years ago. “I think we’re building something here that can be special. Over the last couple of years, we actually had a pitching rotation and always had at least two pitchers.”

Last year, Zullo had a sit-down with sophomore Courtney Wilde and the two discussed the possibility of Wilde becoming a pitcher.

“She started checking it out,” Zullo said. “She pitched some JV (junior varsity) for us last year, but then she really got serious about it over the summer.”
Wilde did what she had to do to become a full-time pitcher. She went to pitching camps and clinics. She signed
on with a local pitching coach.

“She’s an outstanding athlete,” Zullo said of Wilde, who also plays basketball in the winter months. “She’s an athlete throwing the softball, but she is becoming a very good pitcher. She has a very bright future. She’s a competitor. I don’t have to worry about her taking a day off.”
Just recently, the Maroon Raiders spent some time in Florida, playing a total of nine games there.

“And Courtney pitched all nine games,” Zullo said. “She pitched every day. She’s only going to get better. Once she really understands the position, she’s going to be very good.”

Wilde hit a homer against state-ranked Watchung Hills on Saturday, a shot that cleared the 18-foot fence at Ivy Hill Park.

The catcher is junior Emily Hewitt, who “has been learning more and more every game,” according to Zullo.

“As she gains some confidence, she will become a better player,” Zullo said of Hewitt.

The first baseman is senior returnee Lauren Hogan, who is a solid contributor.

At second base stands senior Samantha Echeverria, who is slick with the glove and makes a ton of plays on the infield.

The shortstop is sophomore Melanie Conca, who is still getting accustomed to varsity softball.

Brianna Cruz, a freshman, is the team’s third baseman.

“She never played third base before,” Zullo said. “We asked her to take over at third and she’s doing a nice job at the position.”

That’s asking a lot from a freshman, who first has to understand varsity action, then has to grasp a brand new position. But that’s what Nutley softball is these days.

The Maroon Raiders are 3-4 in the early going. They had a nice win last week against Livingston, taking home a 2-1 decision, but have a tough schedule upcoming with games this week against Cedar Grove and Caldwell.

“It has been a very big learning experience for us,” Zullo said. “We are so young and we have to play in the (Super Essex Conference) American Division, which isn’t easy.”

In the past week, the Maroon Raiders had to face Kelsey Oh of Mount St. Dominic, considered to be the best pitcher in New Jersey, as well as state-ranked teams West Essex and Watchung Hills.

“Those teams are loaded,” Zullo said. “We’ve been thrown into the fire. It’s much different than in the past. We have a great group of girls. We were in the game against West Essex, had a 4-0 lead and then just lost it (losing 7-5). If we show more flashes of brilliance and less moments of inexperience, we’ll be fine. We have potential. It just takes some time. It’s a learning experience, but we’re going to win some games.”

Sophomore Emily DeAngelo is the left fielder, with junior Sydney Kunz moving from right field to center.

“She’s getting more comfortable in center,” Zullo said of Kunz. “She has to go for everything out there.”

Freshman Cecelia Mielnicki is the right fielder.

It has to be Zullo’s youngest team ever.

“We need patience,” Zullo said. “We absolutely need patience. We’re definitely getting experience and we’re learning. I’ve also learned that these girls are not afraid to swing the bats. They’re aggressive at the plate.”
The key to the Maroon Raiders’ good fortune will be Wilde.

“She’s been keeping us in every game,” Zullo said. “She worked hard in the offseason to get ready. She just didn’t pick up the ball in March and decided to pitch. She’s worked hard. She’s a workhorse who is up to the challenge. Her only way is up.”
If the Maroon Raiders continue to get solid pitching from Wilde, then they will be a formidable foe, both in the SEC-American and the Group III playoff ranks.


The Nutley High School softball team will rely heavily on some of the Maroon Raiders’ leaders. They are, from left, Courtney Wilde, Lauren Hogan, head coach Luann Zullo, Sydney Kunz and Samantha Echeverria. Photo by Jim Hague

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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.”