The Nutley High School girls’ soccer team endured some emotionally trying times a year ago.
“We lost seven games by one goal,” veteran head coach Mike DiPiano said. “It was a difficult year.”
It was so difficult that the Maroon Raiders went to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group 3 playoffs to face Somerville. The result? The Raiders lost by a goal.
“I think there was a toughness and a communication issue going on,” DiPiano said. “That’s why we lost so many games by a goal. It wasn’t a skill issue.”
So this season, even with the shortened 10-game season that begins Friday at Livingston at 4 p.m., the Maroon Raiders have developed a motto that has resonated throughout.
“We want to be Nutley strong and Raider tough,” DiPiano said. “If we’re not tough, we’re not going to do well. We need that.”
Although the Maroon Raiders lost some significant players to graduation, especially do-everything mighty mite Samantha Gabriele (who expects to play at Montclair State when the pandemic subsides), the team is loaded with talented juniors who have been starting for DiPiano for the past two seasons.
“We lost a special player in Samantha Gabriele,” DiPiano said. “What she did with the ball was tremendous. She was one of the most creative players in the (Essex) county.”
In preseason, DiPiano made sure that the players communicated more and better.
“We’ve been working on the toughness aspect, but we also need to be talking more,” DiPiano said. “We can’t be quiet out there. They have to be loud and communicating with each other. Each drill we do, we’ve been incorporating more and more. Yelling ‘left foot’ and ‘right foot.’ Speaking with a purpose at different decibel levels. Every player has to do that. If she’s not, she comes out. They have to be yelling, ‘I’m here.’ I’ve seen it a little, but not enough.”
DiPiano will also utilize a different formation this season to best utilize his talent. He’s going to basically have five midfielders with three center midfielders on the pitch.
“Our forwards will have to come back and defend as well,” DiPiano said. “I think we have the personnel that can adapt to the new formation. I think we can cause problems for opposing teams.”
In the back, the Maroon Raiders welcome back sophomore goalkeeper Catalena Robson, who started in net for most of Nutley’s games last season.
“She’s strong and has good hands,” DiPiano said. “We have an advantage with her in goal.”
Backing up Robson is senior Gianna Zoppi.
The sweeper back is junior Rachel Echevarria, who is a returning starter.
“She started every game and brings back a lot of experience,” DiPiano said.
The stopper is sophomore Emma Chimento.
Senior Kaitlyn Gavidia injured a knee early last season and missed most of the year, but has returned healthy to regain a spot at defender.
“We’re excited to have her back,” DiPiano said.
Senior Anna Contini has been a stalwart along the Raiders’ backline for the last four seasons.
“She’s played all over the place,” DiPiano said. “She’s expected to be a leader.”
Senior Jenna Hughes and junior Isabella Bianchi are the returning defenders.
Junior Olivia Real is the Real deal for the Maroon Raiders in the midfield.
“She’s a two-year starter and an anchor for us,” said DiPiano of his talented midfielder whose name is pronounced REE-AL. “She distributes the ball well and creates well. She’s very solid on the ball.”
Junior Sydney Hess is a two-year starter in the midfield.
“She plays all over,” DiPiano said. “I like her in the middle, but she can score, defend, create. She’s very versatile.”
Junior Natalie Rufino is a two-year starter in the midfield as well.
“She has a really good feel offensively,” DiPiano said.
Junior Mackenzie Albert is perhaps the most important midfielder. The top returning scorer who had 18 goals last season, Albert is one of the best scorers in Essex County.
“I think she’s going to benefit from this formation,” DiPiano said. “She has the ability to beat the defender with the ball and score. She has great ability getting the ball to her feet.”
Sophomore Cameron Coffaro is one of the Raiders’ forwards.
“She’s a hybrid forward/midfielder,” DiPiano said. “She plays at a fast pace and has good feet.”
The Raiders also have juniors Mikayla Schoch and Rebecca Echeverria to play upfront. Rebecca is the identical twin sister of Rachel.
“Our point players up front are fast,” DiPiano said. “They can play with their back to the goal. They can distribute as well as score.”
Other players that will see playing time include sophomore midfielders Marchella Blancato, Julia Misner and Isabella Ortega, sophomore defenders Taylor Hughes, Rebecca Reid, Gianna Lembo, junior defender Nikki Cichetti and sophomore defender Mia DiPiano, the coach’s daughter.
“She works hard,” DiPiano said of his daughter. “I try not to have that father/daughter relationship on the field.”
Junior forward Sydney Silva rounds out the Raiders’ roster.
The Raiders will play in the Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division and will shoot to win that title, considering there are no state playoffs this year to shoot for.
“We’re here to test ourselves,” DiPiano said. “Most of these girls have played for me with Nutley United (a club team). Most of these girls started as freshmen, so they’re battle tested. We should have a bunch of gamers. We will be prepared for each game.”
As long as they’re tough. You know, like Nutley strong and Raider tough.
The Nutley girls’ soccer team will count on the play of junior midfielders Olivia Real (left) and Mackenzie Albert (right) this season, which begins Friday at Livingston. Photos 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.”