Nutley HS softball team sparkles on the diamond

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NUTLEY – Under longtime head coach Luann Zullo, the Nutley High School varsity softball team has been a perennial contender for the Super Essex Conference-American Division, Essex County Tournament and state North Jersey Section 2, Group 3 tournament titles.

After losing just two players to graduation — pitcher Carly Anderson and second baseman Jenna Saporito — the Lady Raiders have picked up where they left off last season when they won the state North Jersey Section 2, Group 3 tournament championship and finished with a 24-8 record.

The Raiders sported a stellar 8-2 record through April 19.

Senior left-hander Emily Holden has been dazzling in the pitching circle this season after seeing some time as a pitcher last year.

The other key returning players are senior catcher Danielle Pomponio, junior first baseman Lauren Hogan, junior Sam Echevarria, who has moved to second base; senior shortstop Stefanie Ziemer and senior third baseman Breanna DeMaio.

The experienced outfield consists of senior left fielder Cassie Angelo; senior center fielder Alanis Concepcion; and sophomore right fielder Sydney Kunz.

Though they boast strong experience, the Raiders recognize that playing in the SEC-American Division requires a day-by-day approach.

“We’re just taking it one game at a time,” Zullo said. “I have a lot of returners back. I have a lot of seniors out there. In this division, they know that every single game is big. Every single game is the biggest game we’re going to play, so we’re just taking it one game at a time.”

The Raiders began the season 4-0, with wins over Bloomfield, 10-0; Livingston, 5-4; Montclair, 8-0; and Cedar Grove, 4-0.

The Raiders’ resiliency was on display in the win over Livingston. Trailing 3-0, the Raiders tied it 3-3. Livingston retook the lead, 4-3, but the Raiders rallied again and held on for the win.

Cedar Grove threatened in the seventh and final inning with runners on second and third and none out. But Holden retired the side, including striking out the final two batters of the game to seal it. Zullo praised her players for rising up when faced with adversity in that game.

“Some teams and some players would cower in that situation. These girls don’t do that,” praised Zullo. “I am very proud of them for that.”

The unbeaten streak, however, ended with a tough 2-1 road setback to West Essex. DeMaio hit a single to tie it 1-1, but West Essex won it in walk-off fashion in the seventh inning.

But the Raiders bounced back the next day as they stunned previously undefeated Mount Saint Dominic Academy, the No. 1-ranked team in the state, by a 1-0 score at Yanticaw Park. Holden fired a three-hit shutout, striking out 10 with no walks. She also had the Raiders’ lone hit of the game. Pomponio scored in the fifth inning after an error.

The next day, the Raiders dropped a tough 2-0 decision to Morris Knolls in the NJ Pride/Essex County HS Softball Challenge at Seton Hall University.

The Raiders then defeated Pequannock, 11-0, the following day at the Mount Saint Dominic Invitational in Caldwell.

NHS defeated both Bloomfield, 9-0, and Lenape Valley, 7-1, each on the road to cap a stretch of playing on five straight days.

Besides their overall talent, the Raiders have demonstrated camaraderie, much to Zullo’s delight.

“They get along great,” said Zullo, who has been at the Raiders helm since 1999. “They are fighters. They don’t really get down, which is nice.”

With the upcoming county and state tournaments, the Raiders are looking to make great runs, and know what it takes to get the job done.

“We have lofty goals,” Zullo said. “They won the section last year; they were in the county semis last year. So they know what it’s like and they want to be there.”