Due to a grueling Super Essex Conference – American Division schedule that features six games in total against state ranked and perennial title contenders Mount St. Dominic, Cedar Grove and Livingston, veteran Nutley softball coach Luann Zullo knows that she doesn’t always get a true gauge of how good of a team she has until the Raiders get the chance to play teams from other areas of the state.
It rings especially true this spring as Nutley has dealt with the American Division gauntlet with four sophomores in the starting lineup and the lack of a true year-round pitcher.
So while the Raiders’ record stands at an uncharacteristic 5-14, there is still an optimistic feeling surrounding the team as it approaches the closing stretch of the regular season and the upcoming state tournament in two weeks.
“I’ve said for years that getting into the state tournament and getting out of the American Division of the SEC is when you realize what else is out there and you measure yourself a little differently,” Zullo said. “I will argue with anyone that the American Division of the SEC is one of the best, if not the best divisions in the state. When you’re going that day in and day out, it’s hard to measure yourself.
“We’ve had some good days, we’ve had some bad days. But I think as the season is progressing, we’re getting better every day.”
The beginning of May has shown Zullo and Nutley that while there are still some rough days – most notably a blowout loss this past Saturday to Verona in the Essex County Tournament, there have been notable signs of progress as the Raiders have gone 3-2 this month.
The biggest sign of that progress came last Thursday when Nutley traveled to Bayonne and defeated the reigning Hudson County champions, 4-1. In that game, the Raiders’ sophomores delivered in the biggest moments.
First baseman Lola Thompson matched her career-high with three RBI, in a 2-for-3 performance. Sianna Kantor scored two runs and played stellar center field defense. In the circle, Skye Stoeckel threw her first career no-hitter, allowing just one walk, one hit by pitcher while striking out four.
Stoeckel has had the incredibly unenviable position of trying to fill the void at pitcher left by the graduation of older sister and current Rider University standout Fallyn Stoeckel. But despite being a natural infielder, Skye has accepted the challenge, while also being a key bat in the middle of the lineup with 10 runs and 10 RBI.
Senior Mia DiPiano and sophomore Gabriella Botti have also seen time in the circle in relief of Stoeckel.
“This year, we knew pitching was going to be a situation for us. Skye is an infielder who is stepping into the circle for us and I am so proud of everything she is doing for us because it’s not easy,” said Zullo. “She is getting better every single day. She is an infielder, she plays second base, third base. I think it says a lot that these girls are selfless enough to get in the circle and do that. Skye knew that’s what we needed to be able to play this year.”
Behind Stoeckel is an experienced middle infield as DiPiano is a returning starter at second base and Gabriella Mariano is back at shortstop. Only a sophomore, Mariano has enjoyed a fine season at the plate, hitting .352 while leading the team in runs scored (16) and RBI (14). Thompson (.341 average, 10 RBI) is at first base with senior Victoria Rutnik at third.
Senior Robin Niland is a returning starter in left field and has been a key cog at the top of the Raider lineup, hitting .365 with 12 runs scored. Kantor, the starting center fielder, has scored 14 runs so far. Senior Giuliana Fazio and sophomore Megan Spina have split the right field spot.
Junior Sasha Wanko has taken over as the primary catcher with Botti serving as the backup.
Gianna Haines is the regular designated player, while Gabrielle Mercado and Paige Gugliuzza are valuable reserves that can be counted upon in key moments.
Thanks to its incredibly challenging schedule, Nutley is still in position to potentially earn a first round home game in the upcoming North 2, Group 3 tournament.
The Raiders play rival Bloomfield on May 8 followed by road contests at Caldwell and Lyndhurst that will be vital in determining if they will get a home game for the state playoffs.
“This is an outstanding group of girls. They come every day to play, every day to win,” Zullo said. “They’re not letting our record or those games affect them. I can’t say enough about them and the type of young ladies they are.”
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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.)