NEWARK — The disappointment on their faces was understandable as they walked off the field at Ivy Hill Park Saturday night. But as members of the Nutley softball team made their way back to the bus, they knew there was more work to be done and another goal at hand.
Saturday’s 2-0 defeat to Mount St. Dominic in the Essex County Tournament final was a setback, but with two wins already in the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 tournament, the Raiders focus is now solely on bringing that championship back home.
“We got plans. This (winning Essex County) was part of them, but this is done, this is done and over,” Nutley head coach Luann Zullo said. “This is done and over with. Now we have to look toward states and we have an opportunity in front of us. We have to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and look forward to Tuesday.”
What awaits Tuesday for Nutley, the second seed in N2G3 is a semifinal matchup against third-seeded South Plainfield. With a win, the Raiders would be in the sectional final for third season in a row against either West Morris or a Cranford team, which it beat 1-0 in April after losing a heart-breaker to the Union County school in last year’s final.
Star pitcher Fallyn Stoeckel, who was brilliant in that regular season matchup with Cranford, was once again up to task on Saturday night against Mount St. Dominic, matching zeroes for the first five innings with the non-public power.
Stoeckel struck out the first three batters she faced and allowed just three hits and a walk over those first five innings. For the game, she struck out seven, allowing one earned run on five hits and a walk. It marked the 14th consecutive game Stoeckel has allowed one earned run or less, a stretch where the Raiders have gone 12-2.
The Rider-bound senior now has an eye-popping 275 strikeouts for the season.
“I think she’s been great her entire career, but this year she’s taken it to a whole other level,” Zullo said. “She’s a competitor through and through. I will put her on the mound against anybody.”
But in the bottom of the sixth, Mount St. Dominic broke through. Naya Martinez, a Lyndhurst native and transfer from Lyndhurst High School, led off with her second hit of the night. Then after an Olivia Bibbo sacrifice bunt and Sophia Kiseloski hit, Martinez scored on Sydney Rosenkranz’s sacrifice fly to deep right field.
A bobble in the infield scored Kiseloski for the second run.
“The kid is a flat out ball player, she loves to play,” Mount St. Dominic coach Rob Stern said about Martinez, who went 2-for-3 and is hitting .395 on the year after sitting out the first three weeks due to the state’s transfer rules. “She’d probably rather go out and play two more games, rather than go eat. She loves the competition. I couldn’t be prouder of her.”
In the top of the seventh, Nikki Cicchetti reached on an infield single and stole second with one out. But with the tying run at bat, Mount St. Dominic pitcher Grace Perez recorded her 14th strikeout for out number two, then induced a popup to Martinez at third for the final out.
Said Stern, a Bloomfield resident: “I just said to Fallyn and Luann (after the game) to go win a state championship, you have the talent to do it.”
“We’re from a two-mile radius, we play together, we work hard together and I think they left it all on the field tonight,” Zullo said. “They gave it everything that we have and now we have to move on. We have a huge game against South Plainfield on Tuesday and that has to be our focus right now.”
Nutley reached the N2G3 semifinals with a 4-0 first round victory over Mendham last Tuesday, followed by a 7-0 victory against Summit in the quarterfinals on Friday.
Locally, Lyndhurst’s state tournament hopes are still alive after an 18-0 first round victory against Newark Tech in the North Jersey, Section 2, Group 2 tournament last Tuesday. The Golden Bears were set to play at Madison in the quarterfinals Monday. This weekend also saw Lyndhurst senior Ella Tozduman record her 100th career hit as part of a 12-0 regular season win over Harrison. The ace hurler also struck out 12.
Kearny, North Arlington and Bloomfield, meanwhile, saw their state tournament runs end in last Tuesday’s first round. The Vikings fell, 7-2, at Belvidere in the North Jersey, Section 2, Group 1 tournament.
In the North Jersey, Section 1, Group 4 tournament, the Kardinals dropped a 9-3 decision to Columbia while the Bengals lost a 14-8 slugfest at Union City.
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)