They are the last player links to Nutley’s 2010 state sectional championship team, as well as the Group 3 finalist from that season.
And as Victoria Malanga and Heather Williams wind down their high school softball careers with the Raiders, the two young women have a strong perspective on what competing at a high level has done for their personal growth and development.
“It’s been wonderful,” Williams, a first baseman, said at practice yesterday as Nutley prepares for the second round of the NJSIAA, North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 tournament. “This team has been so much fun. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but once we got to Florida and started playing there, I could tell we were going to be okay. The younger kids showed right away they were ready for the next level.”
Malanga, who has started behind the plate since her freshman year, agreed.
“These freshmen are something else,” Malanga said of Nutley’s core base of youngsters this year. “Sometimes, it’s like we have to hang out with them, because there are only two seniors. But seriously, they’re great kids, and I like the opportunity to be a leader on this team. It means a lot to me. I think the younger kids listen, and if you look at the season we’re having, it’s working.”
After a 13-12 campaign in 2012 which resulted in zero victories in post-season play (county and state tourneys), Nutley has come on, big time, in 2013. Playing in the Super Essex Conference’s American Division, the Raiders finished third and will take an overall record of 21-6 into a sectional quarterfinal, at home, opposite South Plainfield, on May 24. A win there moves the Raiders into the semifinals on May 28.
Nutley coach Luann Zullo knew pretty quickly that Malanga and Williams were ready to assume the important leadership role in 2013.
“We had our year-end meeting last season after the Rahway loss in the states,” Zullo recalled. “We talked to the entire team, then the (2012) seniors left the room. Right then, Victoria kind of set the tone and I said ‘we might be okay, after all.’ I mean, you never know with so many young kids coming up how things are going to go, but I couldn’t be happier with this team. It’s been so enjoyable this season. There’s no drama, the kids enjoy each other’s company and we’re having a real nice year. A lot of that credit goes to Victoria and Heather.”
Zullo recalled a funny moment with an unassuming and very shy Malanga back in 2010.
“I always tried to get her to open up back then, but she was so quiet,” Zullo said. “So, it’s the day after the game when (Detroit Tiger pitcher Armando Galarraga) lost his perfect game on a bad call by the umpire. It’s was also the day after we had beaten Paramus (in the Group 3 semifinal game) and we’re going to play that Saturday (against Middletown South, for the Group 3 title). And I’m trying to get her to understand a certain play, so I say to her, ‘did you see that game last night?’ And she shakes her head (affirmatively). And I said ‘so what happened?’ and she says ‘I don’t know, I didn’t see it.’ And now it’s getting crazy and I say ‘then why’d you say you saw it?’ But it was just a way to get her to understand the game and how to deal with adversity. She was so talented, but I don’t think she understood then what her abilities were.”
Three years later, a very affable Malanga credits her coach, greatly.
“I’m not the person I am today without her,” Malanga said. “She’s taught me so much. And it’s funny, because I see the way she is with this group of freshmen, and Coach is different now. She’s a little more laid back with them, but I can see why. A good coach knows how to adjust to her players. She was tough on me, but I needed that.”
“Oh, she’s way different now,” Williams said with a laugh. “I’m not sure how this group would have handled the Coach we knew as freshmen. But again, this is a different chemistry than what we had as freshmen. And that’s a good thing. Times change. I wouldn’t trade anything for the memories we had, especially with that run to the state championship game. That was incredible.”
Nutley’s 2010 campaign was indeed the story of two seasons. The Raiders had struggled mightily into mid May of that year, playing around .500 ball. There were numerous meetings after games, long talks, but nothing seemed to work. Following a 4-0 loss to Livingston in a SEC game, a contest the Raiders played well in, but fell short to a freshman pitcher named Jess Peslak, Zullo finally got through to the team.
“I told them to just settle down and play,” Zullo said. “That was such a high strung team and any loss created more drama. That group was so talented.”
Williams recalled tee-shirts the coach then presented her team.
“The shirts said ‘Be The Solution’, and seriously, after that, it was all different,” Williams said.
“We didn’t lose another game, really, until the we got the state final,” said Malanga.
Nutley went on to win the sectional championship, then blanked Paramus, 6-0, in the Group 3 semifinal before losing a heartbreaking 5-2 decision to Middletown South in a game Nutley led at one point, 2-1.
“What a run,” Malanga said. “It taught us so much.”
Nutley would win the Essex County Tournament title the following year, rallying past Peslak and Livingston, 5-4, in a classic semifinal before blanking Mount St. Dominic in the final, 3-0.
“I think about those early years,” Malanga said. “I go out to the circle now and talk to (starting pitcher) Carly (Anderson) and I feel good about working with her. She’s such a good kid. But I remember when Coach would tell me to talk to Kayla (Huegel, Nutley’s star pitcher who was graduated in 2011) and I didn’t know what to say. It was like ‘okay, here I am.’ But I learned a lot from playing with Kayla, Eileen (Purcell), Lauren (Iradi) and Kristen (Mattia).”
Williams didn’t even blink when asked if this year’s team could match the successes of 2010 and play in Toms River on June 8 in the Group 3 final.
“No doubt,” Williams said. “These kids? Are you kidding? They can play, and nothing bothers them. We’ve played really good teams in our conference, like Livingston and Mount St. Dominic. Our younger kids had no idea who Peslak was when we played, they just went out and competed. We came up short, but we were right there in all those games.”
Both agree that the end will be melancholy.
“I don’t want it to end,” Malanga said. “I really don’t, but I understand it will soon.”
Malanga will either attend Kean University this fall, or the County College of Morris. She plans to play softball at the next level and hopefully focus on a career in sports medicine, possibly as a physical therapist. She has impressed college coaches and opposing high school coaches with her tremendous defense and ability at the plate.
Williams will be headed to Coastal Carolina University.
“It’s the next step,” she said with a smile. “But, yes, I’ll miss it here. Hopefully, we’ll have a few more games left before it wraps up.”