Athlete of the Week — Nutley softball, shortstop Mariano are heating up at the right time

Gabriella Mariano may only be a sophomore, but is used to pressure at this point.

First it was taking over at shortstop as a freshman on a Nutley team championship expectations and went on to win the North 2, Group 3 title. This year, after several key graduations from that team, the pressure came in the form of being pressed into a much higher profile role as a sophomore on a team short on varsity experience.

“Coming up last year as the starting shortstop as a freshman, I felt a lot of pressure,” said Mariano. “Coming into the season, I knew we were going to need more help so I felt I had to step up a lot.”

In hindsight, it might have been a little too much pressure as Mariano admitted she was swinging for the fences early on rather than simply looking for singles and getting on base.

“I think in the beginning, I was feeling more pressure and I thought I had to get these big hits,” Mariano said. “But I realized just getting singles and trusting everyone behind me helped us way more than me trying to hit the ball out of the park every single time.

“Gab puts a lot of pressure on herself,” Nutley coach Luann Zullo said. “And when she relaxes and plays the game, good things happen.”

Since being eliminated in the Essex County Tournament, good things have been happening both for Mariano and the Raiders.

Nutley has gone 5-2 after losing to Verona in the ECT round of 16 and the play of Mariano and fellow sophomore standouts Lola Thompson, Skye Stoeckel and Sianna Kantor have been front and center in the turnaround.

Mariano had two RBI in the next game against longtime rival Bloomfield, Two days later, her two-run home run set the tone in a 3-2 victory over SEC American Division rival Caldwell. She then added seven hits and seven RBI over blowout wins over Lyndhurst and Hoboken.

With four multi-hit games and 11 RBI during this recent turnaround, Mariano has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week.

Mariano, who is hitting well over .400 for the season, has 16 RBI in May, heading into Nutley’s North 2, Group 3 state tournament opener against Rahway on Tuesday.

“I just try to get singles and I trust everyone behind me,” said Mariano. “I just do my job, get on base so that everyone else can keep getting hits and we can manufacture runs.”

“She’s been doing a very nice job of that this year,” Zullo said. “We’ve moved her around in the lineup a couple of times this year, but it’s been Gab and Lola for a while now. She does her job and she trusts Lola to do her job behind her (in the lineup).”

At the beginning of the season, Mariano was hitting cleanup, but has since moved up to the No. 3 spot with Thompson in the four-hole. It’s a role that Mariano feels better suits her as a table-setter on offense.

“I like hitting third more because I know I’m going to get up in the first inning,” Mariano said. “I know I can try to do something to start off the game and help us get ahead early.”

Nutley, which started the season at 1-9, closed the regular season at 10-16, having won seven of its last 10 games. Thanks to its challenging schedule, the Raiders earned the seventh seed and a first round home game on Tuesday against Rahway. With a win,a likely showdown with reigning Union County champion Cranford would await them in the quarterfinals.

“This season was a character-building season for us,” said Zullo. “They had all of that success last year and a little bit of character building this year that this group has experienced pretty much everything.”

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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 (, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)