The 2020 high school softball season was going to be a solid one for the Maroon Raiders of Nutley High School. All of the pieces were in place. The Maroon Raiders had unparalleled senior leadership, exceptional talent at every position and dedication throughout the roster that made veteran head coach Luann Zullo’s life extremely easy.
But then, fate wasn’t kind. The COVID-19 pandemic put an end to the season before it began. End of the happy times along Franklin Avenue.
“It was really unfortunate,” Zullo said. “The entire program suffered for it. The leaders we had were incredible. I really think we would have had a very good team, even more than wins and losses. The leaders brought the entire team together.”
Senior captains Jamell Quiles and Briana Cruz were the leaders, but the team also had three four-year program members Alexa Hergenhan, Isabella Fogle and Cecelia Mielnicki that helped with the leadership.
“They understood the program and what it was all about to be a part of it,” Zullo said. “It was unfortunate for those kids to not have the chance to finish out their careers the right way. We had big expectations for that team.”
Well, it’s a new year and a new chapter for Nutley’s softball program. The Maroon Raiders started off the 2021 season in fine fashion, winning their first four games last week.
“We have a nice mix of returnees and youth,” Zullo said. “I think the junior class was ready to go and it was hard for the younger kids to keep up.”
Zullo knows that the recipe for success in high school softball is quite an easy one.
“Everybody knows that pitching is such a big part to winning in softball,” Zullo said. “If you have good pitching, it can keep you in games.”
Well, the Raiders don’t have just good pitching. They have spectacular pitching coming from junior Fallyn Stoeckel.
Stoeckel has been so totally brilliant in the opening stages of the season. She has pitched every inning thus far, striking out an astounding 53 batters in just 30 innings pitched, allowing just 10 hits, surrendered just seven walks and two earned runs. She’s posted three shutouts already in four starts. Her earned run average is a sick and stingy 0.46.
“If she is going to pitch that way, she’s going to keep us in games,” Zullo said. “We just have to make the plays behind her. Fallyn knows the game. She wants to win so badly. She’s always working on new pitches. She now has a variety of pitches. She’s constantly coming up with new things to fine tune her pitches. When the season began, she was ready to go. I said to my assistant coaches that the ball looks like it’s coming in a little quicker.”
Stoeckel, the daughter of former Belleville boys’ basketball coach Jim Stoeckel and the granddaughter of Super Essex Conference softball umpire assignor Jim Stoeckel, Sr., is also an outstanding hitter, leading the Maroon Raiders in doubles with three and RBI with seven.
Junior Sydney Hess is the team’s catcher who is batting .555 in the early going with three RBI.
Stoeckel and Hess have played together for so long that most people believe that the two are joined at the hip.
“Sydney hits the ball real hard,” Zullo said. “She has a wonderful demeanor. She loves to play and then goes out there and plays hard.”
The first baseman is sophomore Giana Lembo.
“She never played first base before,” Zullo said. “We were moving her around a bit and then she settled in at first.”
Lembo had foot surgery in December and had spent a good portion of the winter in a walking boot.
“But she’s fine now and playing well,” Zullo said. “We’re happy with her there at first.”
The second baseman is a familiar name to the softball program and Nutley athletics. Sophomore Mia DiPiano is the daughter of head girls’ soccer coach, head wrestling coach and assistant softball coach Mike DiPiano. Forget the last name, Mia is a fine player.
“She’s going to be very good,” Zullo said of DiPiano.
Senior Lorianne O’Connor is the starting shortstop.
“She was the starting second baseman for two years, but we moved her to shortstop this year,” Zullo said. “She came ready to play this year and has made some nice plays so far.”
O’Connor, the Raiders’ leadoff hitter, has scored four runs in four games.
Junior Nikki Cicchetti is the third baseman. She delivered the game-winning hit in the Raiders’ 3-2 win over Becton Regional last week.
The left fielder is sophomore Robin Niland.
“She’s a nice little player who has good instincts on the base paths,” Zullo said. “She’s only going to get better.”
Junior Lia DeMaio is the starting centerfielder.
“She’s really worked at getting better,” Zullo said. “She’s our No. 2 hitter. She’s very quick and has put the time in.”
Senior Julia Ciccone is the right fielder and the team’s cleanup hitter.
“She’s not afraid to leave her feet and makes plays out there,” said Zullo, who mentioned that Ciccone made a brilliant throw from right field to get a runner out at second base on a single to right that became a fielder’s choice.
Senior Sam Daly is the team’s No. 2 pitcher. Juniors Jenna Garner (the team’s courtesy runner) and Luca Blancato are reserve outfielders, while promising freshman Riley Sebastiano is working her way toward getting more playing time.
The Maroon Raiders have 21 more games scheduled and plan on getting them all in, provided that there will be no shutdowns due to COVID-19.
“I think this is a team that will only get better,” Zullo said. “I think with the combination of youth and experience will help this team get better every day. They’re still learning the intricacies of the sport, but the goal is to get better every day. The 4-0 start is nice, but we’re not looking ahead at all. We want to get better every day.”
And we’ll see if that improvement continues all the way into June.
Junior pitcher Fallyn Stoeckel has been nothing short of sensational for the Nutley softball team thus far, pitching to a 0.46 earned run average in four straight victories. Photo courtesy of Jim Stoeckel.
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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.”