The pandemic rarity: Nutley soccer camp

NUTLEY – Back in 1970, there was a popular movie starring film legends Elizabeth Taylor as a Las Vegas chorus girl and Warren Beatty as a down-on-his-luck gambler, entitled “The Only Game in Town.”

Thanks to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, there was only one game in town last week – and that was the annual Nutley soccer camp.

Run by Nutley High School’s head girls’ soccer coach Mike DiPiano, there were approximately 50 kids who attended the week-long sessions. It was a far cry from the regular turnout for the camp, which usually draws approximately 250 kids in each of the two week-long sessions.

But considering the circumstances caused by the pandemic, just having a group of kids in an organized setting – complete with face masks and social distancing – was nothing short of a miracle.

Observer Photo by Jim Hague

All of the surrounding municipalities and schools usually offer a wide variety of summer sports camps, ranging from baseball and softball and basketball and track and field and of course, soccer.

It’s enough to keep any local sportswriter busy in the summer months, bouncing around from one summer camp to another.

But the Pandemic Summer of 2020 limited the local sports camps to just the one in Nutley.

Needless to say, the kids attending the camp felt more than fortunate to be the chosen ones.

“I was a little bit upset,” said Louis DellaVolpe, an 11-year-old goalkeeper who attends the fifth grade at Yantacaw School in Nutley. “I thought I was going to have to stay inside all summer. But then things got a little better when I heard about this camp. I got real excited. It’s here in my hometown.”

“I thought I was going to be stuck in the house for the summer,” said 9-year-old Michael Perna, who will be a fourth grader at Yantacaw this fall. “I didn’t want to be sitting on my couch playing electronics every single day. It would be pretty boring.”

So needless to say, Perna was overjoyed to learn that there would be soccer camp this summer despite the pandemic.

“I was mind blown,” Perna said. “Plus, Mike’s (DiPiano) my pal. I haven’t seen him in so long. This was something great to do. I got to use my soccer skills.”

Perna didn’t mind that the camp was co-educational, with the girls outnumbering the boys by about a 3-to-1 margin.

“It would have been greater if there were more boys here,” Perna said. “But my close friends were here, so it was still good. A lot of kids didn’t come because of the COVID, but it didn’t matter to me.”

Daniela Gagliardo is a 12-year-old seventh grader at the Nutley Middle School. She was also upset that she was destined for a summer indoors due to the pandemic.

“It was very disappointing,” Gagliardo said. “I was playing video games or spending time on the telephone. But when I heard about the camp happening, I was pretty excited. I love playing soccer.”

Gagliardo, a defender, finds the time for training three days a week for three different teams that she plays for.

“This helped me get ready for the season, when I’m very busy,” Gagliardo said. “It was great preparation and it was a lot of fun.”

Gagliardo said she learned a lot about positioning.

Sophia McMullen is an 11-year-old defender who plays for the Nutley Recreation program as well as Cedar Stars.

“I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to be able to socialize with my friends this summer,” McMullen said. “I love to socialize and play soccer. I was mostly playing video games and that gets boring. But I was so excited about this.”

McMullen said that she learned about ball control.

“I worked on my dribbling,” McMullen said. “It felt like a normal day being out here. My friends were here, so that made it a lot of fun. I learned a lot and I worked on my skill moves.”

McMullen is a rarity because…
“I will play anywhere on defense,” McMullen said. “I don’t like playing up (at forward, attacking and trying to score goals).”

Imagine that — a soccer kid who doesn’t like to score.

Makayla Albert is a 12-year-old who will enter the seventh grade at the Nutley Middle School this fall.

“I was really looking forward to playing all sports this summer, so I was kind of upset,” Albert said. “I knew that if I stayed home, I wouldn’t see my friends and all.”

But the camp brought about smiles to Albert’s face.

“I look forward to this camp every year,” said Albert, who has become a regular over the last six years. “It was good to see my friends again.”

Albert said that she also liked seeing former Nutley High stars like Zoe Steck, who is currently headed into her senior year at the University of Connecticut.

“I always look up to her,” Albert said. “Zoe helped me get better with my skills. I’m trying to get more accurate with my shot. It usually goes all over. It either goes up or down. Zoe helped me to make my shot stronger. This helped me a lot. I now have skills I can work on every single day. I feel real lucky that we had the chance to come out here this year.”

DiPiano also felt fortunate to have the camp at all.

“I didn’t think we were going to have it this year,” DiPiano said. “I didn’t think we’d be here. But when the Governor (Murphy) gave us the opportunity to go outside, then I said it would be good for the mental health and overall health of our kids to get out and have a week at least. I think every parent was excited for it. There were others who were a little leery of sending their kids and I can value that decision. But I thought it was important to give the kids the kind of summer that they’ve been used to. We didn’t have the 250 kids that we usually do, but that’s okay.”

DiPiano gave credit to the 50 or so kids, ages seven through 13, who attended the camp.

“They were ready,” DiPiano said. “Not one of these kids worried about anything. This camp wasn’t only about soccer. It was about seeing friends and classmates. It was a different kind of camp in a different way. I’ve run camps for a long time. I knew we could do it the right way. We knew that we had kids who could follow the rules. We made it fun. It was challenging, but it was fun. The kids were excited. It was a good camp.”

Emily D’Angelo from Muhlenberg College, Samantha Gabriele of Montclair State and Victoria Kealy of Pace, who now also serves as DiPiano’s assistant with the Nutley varsity, served as counselors at the camp, along with some of DiPiano’s current players.

Needless to say, it was worthwhile. Just ask DellaVolpe.

“I learned how to shoot with my left foot,” DellaVolpe said. “I learned how to play all over the place. I wasn’t thinking that I was with the girls. I was just playing.”

And that’s more than a lot of other local kids can say.

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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.”