It’s understandable if the last six-plus weeks for the Nutley baseball team has felt like a bit of a whirlwind as it tries to get acclimated to a new head coach in Eric Puzio while trying to navigate a relentless SEC American Division schedule.
Last weekend’s rainstorms resulted in a rare four-day break for the Maroon Raiders, and perhaps most importantly, a chance for them to catch their breath before the stretch run.
“Obviously we want to play, but it gives us an opportunity to reset, get a rest,” said Puzio, a former player and assistant at Nutley, who was the head coach at St. Benedict’s before this year. “We have a lot of people that are kind of banged up and I think it gave us a great opportunity for a couple of days to heal and reset and look forward to May.”
While a 3-7 record is not what Puzio and Nutley are accustomed to, they’re have been signs of a turnaround, most notably, a recent 14-4 win over a Montclair team considered one of the top contenders in Essex County and North 1, Group 4.
At the forefront of the Raiders’ success that day was leadoff hitter and center fielder Justin Cifelli. The senior has enjoyed a breakout season atop the Nutley lineup, hitting .343 while leading the team in hits (12), runs (11) and stolen bases (seven).
“He causes havoc, he is the starter, he is the thing we need at the top of the lineup,” Puzio said. “He’s been so consistent, he gets on base two to three times a game. You can’t ask for anything more. When he gets on base it’s like a triple. If he gets a walk or a base hit, he’s on third base before you know it.”
In right field is one of the best all-around athletes in Essex County in senior Brandon Lucia. Lucia, who is committed to play football at Marist, is hitting .385 with a team-best .654 slugging percentage.
Jonathan Breilhoff (.333, five stolen bases) starts in left field and has been a key cog in the lineup.
At first base, 6-foot-3 junior Erik Thompson has been perhaps the biggest surprise early on, as the first-year varsity player leads the team in hitting at .423 and in RBI with 10.
“Erik’s just consistent in everything that he does,” Puzio said. “He’s a good player and a solid guy. He continues to do his thing on a regular basis and he’s leading us in hitting right now.”
Junior Rocco DeLitta starts at second base where he has the ability to stand out defensively anywhere on the infield.
On the left side of the infield, senior Mike Zitola and sophomore Drew Slomkowski split the shortstop position depending on who is pitching. Both could also move to third base, where promising sophomore Ben McNeil has been getting most of the time at third base so far.
Senior catcher Derek Lanza has emerged as a team leader, while also enjoying a successful start at the plate with a .321 average.
“He really came out of nowhere,” Puzio said of Lanza, a team captain. “I thought at the beginning that he was going to be more of a role guy and he ended up being a voice who has stepped up.”
Senior Joseph Cifelli is the primary starter at designated hitter, but is a capable defender at multiple positions.
Others playing key roles off the bench include juniors David Sanchez, Janderson Santos-Sanchez and Jayden Velez, as well as sophomores Nick Palumboo and Jacob LoMonaco.
Pitching was a struggle for Nutley in April, but Puzio is hopeful his group on the mound will improve as the season goes along. Zitola in particular, looked on the verge of breaking out of his early-season struggles, striking out six while allowing just three hits in his last start against Nutley. Zitola emerged as the Maroon Raiders’ ace last year with late-season wins over Columbia, Bayonne and Chatham.
Sophomores Slomkowski and LoMonaco follow Zitola in the rotation with Thompason and Velez as key arms out of the bullpen.
Nutley returns to action on May 2 at Bloomfield before hosting Seton Hall Prep in a 6 p.m. start. The Maroon Raiders earned the eighth seed in the Greater Newark Tournament and will host ninth-seeded Columbia in the first round on Friday in what will be the third matchup between the two this season.
“We can play with anyone, go on the road, play with anyone in the state and be able to compete,” Puzio said. “These guys have the ability.”
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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.)