With less time to get ready, spring sports teams begin practice

As Nutley softball coach Luann Zullo prepares for another season, there’s perhaps a greater sense of urgency. Due to changes made by the NJSIAA, practices for this year’s spring sports season began late last week, leaving coaches like Zullo nearly two fewer weeks to be prepared for opening day.

In previous years, the first day of practice was March 7. This season full team practices were

not allowed to start until March 16. For baseball and softball, pitchers and catchers were able to start on March 13.

With opening day set for Monday, April 3, coaches find themselves looking at their watches, trying to figure how to do all that needs to be done before games begin in earnest.

“It is absolutely a challenge. I don’t think we’ll really fully understand it or be able to speak on it until we have a full season under our belts. All I can say is that I keep thinking ‘we only have two weeks, we only have two weeks! I gotta do this, I gotta do that,’” said Zullo. “I’m trying to cram stuff in faster than we have in the past. Usually we have a lot more time for tryouts and things happen organically.”

“It’s tough,” Harrison softball coach Keith Mair said. “I’m rolling right into my season starting Friday. We have preseason games Friday, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. It’s getting the girls up to speed. Luckily I had a young team last year, so most of my starters have returned so they know the deal. You have to extend practice as long as you can to get stuff done.”

For Mair, no one on his team is a year-round softball player, which makes the shorter preseason a more daunting challenge as he tries to push practices as long as he can in the March elements.

A few hundred feet away in the gym, Blue Tide volleyball coach Nick Landy is largely removed from that concern as he returns a veteran group, many of whom play volleyball throughout the year.

“In the past, we’ve had players who swam or did other sports, which we encourage since it keeps them in shape. But we don’t really have those kids this year,” Landy said. “Our kids do a lot of work in the offseason whether it’s our summer league and summer workouts. A lot of the kids are doing club and the rec program helps us out with some open gyms. We’re not too concerned with court rust.”

Landy and other volleyball coaches don’t have to deal with concerns over the fickle March weather. As a way to try to catch up, some teams like Nutley softball and Lyndhurst baseball organize and fundraise for their players to go to Florida or another warm weather venue. The advantage of those days in the sun could prove especially valuable.

“This could play into our advantage because we’re going to be able to get down there and we’re going to be able to get a lot of work in, in very good weather. Maybe that helps us,” Lyndhurst baseball coach Pat Auteri said. “In the past years that’s helped us when we’ve seen bad March weather. When we got back, we often found ourselves ahead of the game.”

For Auteri and other baseball coaches, the shorter preseason looms even larger due to the time needed for pitchers to build up arm strength before the start of the season. Most of his players used the extra time between the end of winter and start of spring to start building up for April and while he appreciates the enthusiasm, there is the concern of kids doing this without the proper supervision of coaches.

“Our kids are into it and obviously they want to get their arms in shape, but if we’re there as a coaching staff to supervise and not overdo it,” said Auteri. “I think the tendency is that the kids are so excited that they might overdo it a little bit and throw too much because you don’t have that coach in their ear to tell them you’ve done enough.

“I think the two weeks were good in certain aspects, giving the kids the chance to get a little rest and then two weeks to get rejuvenated.”

When the NJSIAA announced its schedule changes, they were done with the intention of giving student-athletes a period to rest, recover and recharge their batteries between seasons.

Zullo, who at one point was the head girls basketball and softball coach at West Essex certainly appreciates the added break the new schedule provides, even if it means more stress for herself and other coaches.

“It’s nice to not have the crossover where basketball is still going on and you still have those players that play both and you’re putting them in a bit of a jam,” Zullo said, recalling her days when she coached both at the same time. “For those athletes and I am a strong, strong proponent of multi-sport athletes, I think this is great for those athletes that play multiple sports.

“I just think it puts a little more pressure on us as coaches to prepare a team. Two weeks, that’s tough.”

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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.)