Sure, the Nutley High School softball team fell to Mount St. Dominic, 3-2, in the finals of the Essex County Tournament last week at Ivy Hill Park.
But don’t for a second feel sorry for the Maroon Raiders.
Despite what transpires in the final few regular season contests and then then NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III state playoffs, which were slated to begin Tuesday with a home game against Mendham, veteran coach Luann Zullo’s bunch has accomplished one of their main goals.
“They’re having fun,” Zullo said. “They play the game not worrying about all the little things. They’re just having fun.”
With all apologies to Cyndi Lauper, the Maroon Raiders are having a blast this season. They are currently ranked No. 20 in the entire state with a 19-3 record. They’ve won their last two games by a combined score of 27-0 against teams like West Essex and Millburn that would have given the Maroon Raiders fits in the past. They will begin the state sectionals as the section’s No. 1 seed.
“If you would have told me before the season that we’d be 19-3 this year, I would have signed up for that,” the affable Zullo said.
Last week, before the Maroon Raiders faced Mount St. Dominic, the state’s No. 2-ranked team, Zullo tried to give her team a history lesson.
“I tried to explain how important the county tournament was,” Zullo said. “They did not seem fazed by it at all. I think I said that the next game is the biggest game and they are living up to that. I mean, four of our starters right now never played varsity softball before this year. How can you explain it?”
One of the main reasons for the Maroon Raiders’ success is junior pitcher/do-everything Fallyn Stoeckel, who was able to gain valuable experience as a freshman two years ago before the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out all of 2020.
Stoeckel has been nothing short of brilliant this year, striking out 136 batters in 131 innings, allowing just 20 earned runs on 86 hits, pitching to a 1.06 earned run average. She also leads the team with 26 hits and 22 RBI, batting .419 in the process. It’s one of the best all-around performances in Nutley softball history and there have been plenty of those over Zullo’s career.
“Fallyn has been incredible,” Zullo said. “Of course, pitching is so important in softball, but Fallyn does it all.”
Zullo points out that one of the team’s top leaders is back-up pitcher Samantha Daly, who gets very few chances to throw with Stoeckel in the circle. In fact, Daly has thrown only 15 innings this season, but Zullo counts on the senior Daly to be a leader.
“I told her that she was so important to us this year,” Zullo said of Daly. “She’s not afraid to call someone out if they’re doing something wrong. She’s done a tremendous job as a senior leader.”
Zullo likes the idea that the Maroon Raiders are not totally reliant on the middle of their lineup to produce runs.
“Every game it’s someone new that steps up and delivers,” Zullo said. “They all have really come up big.”
And there’s another trait about the Maroon Raiders that Zullo admires.
“My team never quits,” Zullo said. “They battle like no other team I’ve ever coached. They’re never out of it.”
For example, the Maroon Raiders were down, 2-0, to Mount St. Dominic in the Essex County finale. Game over, right?
Nutley rallied for two runs in the top of the seventh inning on RBI singles by Robin Niland and Gianna Lembo to send the game to the home seventh tied. The Maroon Raiders had defeated West Essex in the quarterfinals and then Livingston in the semifinals to get the right to reach Ivy Hill Park and the county title game. It just wasn’t meant to be this time.
“I just love the way this team keeps battling and battling,” Zullo said. “We are never out of it. I don’t know what it is. They’re just a fun group to be around. They keep me on my toes. But when they’re having fun and playing well, it makes my job easier. Sure, every game is exciting. But after the game is over, I feel good. I feel like every game is a big game.”
From this point on, they’re all big games.”
And what makes this run even more inviting and enticing? There are only three seniors on the entire roster – Daly, LoriAnne O’Connor and Julia Ciccone.
It means Nutley’s “Fun Bunch” will be back in 2022, causing all kinds of havoc on opponents.
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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.”