1,000 meals, to start: Wayne Hills Football program giving back to its community, in big way, with ‘Meals for our Medical Heroes’, while assisting local eateries

The epidemic which has reached global proportions has also created havoc locally.

So many are trying to step up to help small businesses during a difficult time, and the Wayne Hills football program is part of that effort.

Contributing to local charities has long defined the Wayne Hills football program.

“As an organization that relies heavily on our community for support of our program, we feel the overwhelming need to give back to our own and surrounding communities in their time of need,” the program commented in a recent release. “With that in mind, Wayne Hills Football Booster Club has started a collection to help support our brave, strong, heroes on the front lines at hospitals.  These individuals are risking their own health and safety to take care of countless others.  They are sacrificing time with their families. 

Wayne Hills coach Wayne Demikoff, here with sons Tyler and Troy, and dad, Wayne, Sr., resides in Wayne, NJ, and has long been an advocate for supporting businesses in the town.

“They are working with very little resources to keep them safe.  They are fighting battles and encountering heartache every single day.  Figuring out what to eat needs to be the LAST thing on their minds, and we want to help.”

The Patriots players have participated in charity runs. They also took part in a ‘Color Run’, in 2016, to benefit St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital (below).

While the medical professionals are doing a tremendous job, with little time off, local restaurants have felt the pinch, as well.

“We saw a need for those businesses, as well as the doctors, nurses and other professionals in the medical field,” said Tony Giampapa, a past president of the Booster Club, and currently, a trustee. “We can feed two birds with one apple.

Enter the Wayne Hills Football Booster Club’s “Meals for our Medical Heroes”, which will help collect monies to assist the local restaurants, while feeding the heroes on the front line of this battle.

In 2019, Wayne Hills supported young Zach Galasso and his family, before a game.

Under the program, all monies collected will go toward providing meals to doctors, nurses and hospital personnel.  Meals will be ordered by the Wayne Hills Football Booster Club, on behalf of the parents/families that have donated. The booster club will also match any donation made.

The program will be using the loyal food sponsors for this effort. The list of sponsors includes The Brownstone, Jersey Mike’s Subs, Manhattan Bagel, My Salad, Outback Steakhouse, Pizza One, Positano, Preakness Gourmet Deli, Primo Pizza, Sunrise Bagels, Bagel Buffet and Anthony Francos of Wayne.

The team has also donated turkeys to the needy during Thanksgiving.

Wayne Hills head football coach Wayne Demikoff has long appreciated the support from so many in Wayne.

“As a program, we want to do whatever we can to help those businesses that have been so great to us,” said Demikoff. “These are very difficult times. We’re proud to be there, in any way we can.”

The Booster Club further expounded on its commitment.

Winning championships has been a part of the Wayne Hills’ football heritage, but what the community is facing now will require a big effort from a lot of people.

“The Wayne Hills Football Booster club encourages our football families to do the same and support our food sponsors,” the club noted. “They are really hurting right now.  It’s our time to return the support by ordering food and gift cards and recommending them to your family and friends.”

The Meals for Medical Heroes will begin by focusing on St. Joseph’s Hospital in Paterson and Wayne, and Chilton Medical Center for providing the meals. If enough money is collected, other hospitals and local charities could be added.

The Patriots have also helped deliver Christmas presents to children.

Giampapa noted that the Medals for Medical Heroes hopes to feed 1,000 medical professionals, to start.

“A special thanks to our very generous sponsors for donations already made including Right Way Driving School and RWC Windows, Doors & More,” noted the Booster Club. “We are in conversations with many others currently interested in helping as well.  We’re off to great start!”

Monetary donations can be made the following ways:

Mail/Drop a check payable to Wayne Hills Football, Inc., 4 Farm View Court Wayne, NJ, 07470.

Venmo to @marco-brunetti. Please note Covid19.

Credit Card Payments (please update the quantity to accommodate your desired donation amount): https://www.waynehillsfootball.com/store

In addition to Meals for Medical Heroes, Giampapa also reminded those, who are able, that purchasing gift cards is a good way to help local eateries.

“A lot of these restaurants could use gift card purchases,” said Giampapa. “This way, they have some much-needed cash up front, and, of course, they’ll be good for whatever the consumer wishes to purchase down the road.”

By mike051893

Nearly 8 years later, and ‘The Game That Never Was’, remembering what might have been between Livingston and IHA on the softball diamond, at Ivy Hill

It was May 8, 2012, and two undefeated New Jersey high school softball teams were scheduled to play a 7 p.m. game at Ivy Hill Park.

Immaculate Heart Academy was ranked first in the state while Livingston was second. Both teams had standout pitchers and a marvelous lineup.

Unfortunately, the game never happened. Light rain at 4 p.m., which didn’t affect a nearby game as Columbia played Caldwell that afternoon, somehow forced a cancellation of a 7 p.m. game, when there was no rain and, in fact, the sun was out.

Since it was not a conference game, the contest would not be made up. But, nearly eight years later, it’s an interesting time to look back at what may have been, in The Game That Never Was.

Kylie McLaughlin (left) and Alexa Altchek were key players for the 2012 Lancers.

Anthony LaRezza was IHA’s coach while Jason Daily led Livingston, 2012 Daily is beginning his 20th season as the Livingston’s top coach. LaRezza passed away in February, 2016.

LaRezza and Daily were friends and had high respect for each other’s program.

LaRezza would always have kind words for the opposition, but he particularly liked Livingston. Quite often, he’d be seen in the stands, watching Livingston play, on days when IHA was off.

“They were really good,” LaRezza would say of Livingston, in 2014, in looking back at that game. “We didn’t play Livingston, a lot, but it was fun when we did. And it was always a tough game. Jason is a great guy, and his teams are always prepared.

“I’m not sure who would have won that (2012) game. (Junior pitcher) Jess (Peslak) was incredible that season. She was unhittable.”

Jess Peslak was 26-1 in 2012.

Peslak, dubbed Secretariat, would finish the 2012 season with some incredible numbers, including a 26-1 record, with a 0.32 ERA while leading Livingston to arguably its best season in the program’s history.

Peslak fanned 307 in 175 2/3 innings of work while walking 37. She also had 19 shutouts, including five-no hitters and nine one-hitters. She fanned a season high 17 in a win over West Essex in the Essex County Tournament semifinals and recorded double figures in strikeouts 20 times.

Livingston coach Jason Daily, with All-State players Kylie McLaughlin (left) and Jess Peslak, in 2012.

Peslak, a graduate of Hofstra University who is now in law school, opened the 2012 season by not allowing an earned run in her first 73 innings. She wound down the year by not yielding a run, earned, or unearned, from April 27 to June 5, a span of 82 1/3 innings during which she threw 11 straight shutouts while also making a few relief appearances. Ultimately, Peslak gave up one earned run in her final 88 2/3 innings.

I often said that LaRezza’s famous 2010 ‘Memorial Day speech’ was a classic, and it came on the heals a 1-0 loss to Livingston, at the IHA Tournament. In that game, Peslak, then a freshman, didn’t pitch, but she drove in the winning run.

Daily had equal respect for LaRezza.

“A great guy,” Daily would often say. “Anthony’s teams are very talented. They play hard and play with class. They learned from the best.”

IHA had a marvelous pitcher, too, in Steph Thomas, who was a sophomore in 2012. Thomas would go on to win a state-record 113 career games and went on to a tremendous pitching career at Lafayette College.

The eventual Gatorade Player of the Year in 2014, Thomas (aka Affirmed) would not only lead the state in career wins, but her 68 shutouts was also a state record.

Steph Thomas (center) with then-assistant coach Diana Fasano and Anthony LaRezza, in 2014, after Thomas became the state’s all-time winningest pitcher.

In 2014, alone, Thomas was 31-2 with 285 strikeouts and just 17 walks in 193 innings, while pitching to an earned run average of 0.47. She also hit .532 with 11 doubles and 23 RBI. For her career, Thomas had 951 strikeouts and an ERA of 0.54. And she could flat-out hit, too.

LaRezza, a tough grader for his own players, said this to NorthJerseySports.com in 2014 about Thomas.

Steph Thomas celebreated win number 113 with her grandparents, nearly six years ago.

“I have said this before, but she might be the best player to come out of New Jersey in the history of New Jersey. There might have been better pitchers and there might have been better hitters, but there has never been a player that I know of that does that combination better and she does even more than that,” said LaRezza. “She hits, she runs, you see the way she fields her position. She takes hits away from leadoff batters that hit the ball hard up the middle. She just grabs it and throws them out. As far a pitcher that can do it all, I don’t know if there has ever been anybody better.’

So, who would have won that game in 2012? We’ll obviously never know. But here’s a look at the lineups from that season, as both teams had tremendous hitters, but it’s hard to tell how much offense would have been generated that night, with the quality of the pitching.


Kylie McLaughlin, CF Angelina McGuire, CF

Sammi Rothenberger, SS Danielle Ibarra, SS

Alexa Altcheck, RF Rachel Pollard, RF

Jazzy Pignatello, 1B Abby Holmes, 1B

Jess Peslak, P Steph Thomas, P

Marina Lombardi, C Ally Vergona, C

Rachel Wasilak, 2B Carly Piccinich, 2B

Reid Singer, LF Emily Walter, LF

Carly LaGrotta, 3B Cassidy Trause, 3B

Kailyn Reilly, DP Emily Correa, DP

Sammi Passeri, Runner Steph Schulz, Runner

It should be noted that IHA and Livingston did play in 2013, at an early season tournament at Mount St. Dominic, in Caldwell, and IHA won, 5-2.

“Different teams in 2013,” LaRezza once said. “The core players were still there, but Jess was injured when we played them that year and she wasn’t her usual dominant self. I’m still not sure if we would have won in 2012, but I would have liked our chances. We had great kids that year, too.”

IHA would finish 32-0 in 2012 and be ranked the state’s best team. Livingston would win a conference, county and state sectional title, but were defeated in the Group 4 semifinal by Hunterdon Central. The Lancers finished 29-1 that year.

After meeting in 2013, Livingston and IHA would go on to excellent seasons. The Lancers would win the conference, county and state sectional titles again, before losing in the Group 4 semifinal to Watchung Hills.

Always influential coaches, Anthony LaRezza and Jason Daily helped younger coaches. Phil Delgado (standing next to Anthony) was very close to LaRezza and always respected Daily.

IHA would win another Bergen County and conference championship, before losing to St. John Vianney in the 2013 Non-Public A final.

Two years later, LaRezza would lead IHA to another state championship, in sadly, his final game as coach.

Two hundred forty three days after that title in 2015, LaRezza passed away, but his legacy remained strong, as IHA went on to another state championship in 2016, led by coach Diana Fasano. And a year after that, Fasano would guide IHA to the first Tournament of Champions crown.

Livingston would win a third state sectional championship in five seasons in 2016, under Daily’s guidance. He remains one of the best coaches in North Jersey.

As for The Game That Never Was?

I’ll go with Livingston, 2-1, in 8 innings.

By mike051893

Sarfati begins 10th full season with one of her strongest softball teams at Montclair Kimberley Academy

Jess Sarfati’s coaching tenure at Montclair Kimberley Academy includes a few years as an assistant coach, before taking over the reigns, officially in 2011.

Now, as she starts her 10th season at the helm, Sarfati feels this year’s team can bring back memories of those squads which included Molly Herforth and Andrea Huelsenbeck, over a decade ago, when winning Non-Public B state titles came on a regular basis for the Cougars.

During happier teams, MKA was on the softball field. Photos courtesy of Jess Sarfati.

“We were really looking forward to the season,” said Sarfati. “But right now, we’re in a holding pattern.”

Of course, Sarfati is referring to the NJSIAA mandate that there be no athletic events, as the state, the country, and for that matter, most of the world, deals with the Coronavirus pandemic.

Sarfati had been an assistant to John O’Dell for two seasons, including a Non-Public B championship in 2009, then Kathy Hill for the 2010 campaign.

From 1999-2009, MKA won eight Non-Public B crowns, including four straight and five in six seasons, while appearing in 10 championship games. It hasn’t been to the final since that ’09 championship campaign.

This season, the Cougars have a strong senior class, led by team captains Geena Pacifico, Amanda Mack and Emily Talkow.

Mack, a catcher, will play at Penn State University, starting this fall while Talkow, the team’s shortstop, is headed to Washington University, in St. Louis, Mo. Pacifico is expected to be MKA’s number one pitcher this spring.

The team roster also includes seniors Jaime Fuchs, Jillian Fishback and Ava Cappitelli.

The junior class includes Annie Turvey and Leah Wohl while the sophomores are Lucy Jacobowitz, Lara Pramanik 2022, Jackie Tsai, Ava DiLorenzo and Amanda West.

The freshmen are Nat Yu, Amara, Alex Berra and Maddie Wheeler.

Sarfati’s coaching staff remains the same since she took over in 2011, with Donna Bruno and Isabel Alexander returning.

MKA was supposed to leave for its annual trip to the Disney Complex, in Florida, for the usual spring training on March 23.

“We were able to cancel the trip just in time,” said Sarfati. “Even with that disappointment, our seniors were so upbeat. They wanted everyone to stay positive. They’re such a good group of kids, and I really hope they get the chance to play.

“I know it’s a tough time, but we’re still hoping maybe, in a few weeks, they’ll get a chance to play.”

By mike051893

Essex Softball: Mondadori Llauget begins her 16th season at West Essex with a young, talented team that will be led by captains Liggieri, Coia and Apito

As Andrea Mondadori Llauget begins her 16th season as head softball coach at West Essex, she does so with an impressive resume.

Mondadori Llauget has guided the Knights to five Essex County championship games, as well as two county titles, in 2007 and 2016. In addition, she’s led West Essex to multiple state sectional titles.

Lilly James (left) and Julia Vardiman were a big part of West Essex’s recent success on the softball diamond.

But Mondadori Llauget, like her many coaching counterparts, both locally and throughout the state, has never seen anything like what 2020 has provided, in the form of a pandemic.

And like her counterparts, ‘Mondo’ remains somewhat optimistic that perhaps her team can play a few games before the school year concludes in late June.

Andrea Mondadori and Jay Ahmed address their team after an exciting win over Passaic Valley in the NJSIAA Tournament last spring.

An educator at West Essex, Mondadori Llauget has a relatively young team this season. The Knights have had its share of successes over the years. Last year’s team, a feisty group, led by senior pitcher Julia Vardiman (who is now a freshman at the College of New Jersey) had a tremendous run in the state sectionals, advancing to the finals, before losing to West Milford, 3-1.

West Essex hopes to celebrate another team title, as it did in 2016 after winning an Essex County Tournament championship.

West Essex had started 3-6 last season, then won six straight before a 1-0 setback to Cedar Grove. The Knights closed the season with 11 wins in its last 16 games, along with three victories in the NJSIAA Tournament and posted a 14-11 record.

West Essex’s recent success, the team has an 92-40 record, over the last six seasons, gives rise to a level of confidence among the returning players this spring.

The team captains this season are Alexa Liggieri, Jessica Coia and Fran Apito.

Coach Jay Ahmed and Julia Vardiman after a 2018 game.

“We have a nice group of seniors,” said Mondadori Llauget. “And I really want them to be able to play this spring. I feel bad for all the kids, but, of course, the seniors are a top priority for this year.”

Mondadori Llauget’s coaching staff includes long-time assistant Jay Ahmed along with Monica Onorata, who is new to the staff, but certainly a familiar face to the program. Onorata played softball at West Essex and was graduated in 2016.

This year’s roster includes seniors Julia Rubenstein, Leah Buccino and Emily Suhey, juniors Olivia Emmolo and Nikki Simonetti, sophomores Alissa Gallion, Nicole Massaro, Juliana Palazzo, Jessica Moresco, Bella Slaeen, Jordan Ruffer, Julia Guerriero, Julianna Tornatore and Nicole Connington and freshmen Courtney Turanick and Olivia Simonetti.

Teamwork has always defined West Essex softball, even in little things like helping to tie a shoe.

“We have some other younger players that were going to get some varsity opportunities into the scrimmages,” said Mondadori LLauget. “Courtney Turanick, who was injured before the season began, was set to be cleared March 17.

“Olivia Simonetti made the varsity squad as a freshman, after six practices. There are some other younger players that we were looking at as well. We really didn’t have a concrete lineup set, we were in full tryout mode prior to the stoppage.”

Now, it’s just a matter of wait and see, and hopefully there will be some good news for the team soon.

By mike051893

If only it can get back on the field, Nutley High baseball has high hopes for 2020

Less than three weeks ago, the Nutley High baseball team had begun practice with a high anticipation of the 2020 season.

Now, there are serious questions as to whether the team will have a season, after the Coronavirus outbreak, which has devastated the entire country. 
Nutley coach Bob Harbison admits he’s never seen anything like this before, and he’s part of a long list of coaches and school administrators who realize there’s little they can do, except hope for a major improvement in the weeks to come.

“We lost some talented kids to graduation, including two who are now playing Division 1 baseball, in Marty Higgins (St. John’s University) and Josh O’Neill (Stony Brook U.). But I liked what I was seeing from the kids in practice.”

Nutley coach Bob Harbison addresses his team during a Greater Newark Tournament game in 2018.

The Raiders began practice on March 6 and had an ambitious pre-season schedule, before the start of the regular season on April 1. Now, of course, with no scrimmages and no end in sight to resume school, it’s questionable whether the Raiders will even play varsity baseball this spring.

“We’re hoping,” said Harbison. “Even if the season starts in early May, maybe we can get six weeks of games in.”

Harbison’s coaching staff includes Phil Agosta, JD Vick, Frank Sasso, Chris Weinstein and Augie Mustardo. 

Trevor Santos, a senior lefthander, who will play baseball at Manhattan College starting this fall, is one of the key Raiders for 2020. Santos could be the team’s number one pitcher, as well as a centerfielder.

Kevin Hogan, also a senior, is a pitcher and first baseman. Hogan plans to play at Felician University this fall.

Nutley has had a lot of success in post-season play. In 2018, the team advanced to the GNT final.

Also expected to pitch this season for Nutley are Andrew Budine, Joe Delanzo, Cameron Schilp, Jake Walsh,  Ryan Breihof, Damian Quiles and Lou Delitta. 

Thirty two players make up the roster for the Raiders’ junior varsity and varsity teams. The infield features Hogan at first base, Dominick DiNorscio and Delanzo playing second, Justin Lucia and Dylan Santos playing shortstop and Anthony Haines at third base.

Lou Rafaelli, a junior, will start for the third straight year behind the plate while the outfield candidates include Dan Jennings, Andrew Ponzoni and John Coppola in leftfield,Trevor Santos in center and Andrew Connor and Felix Gonzalez in right field.

“I think we’ll have a better overall lineup, from 1 to 9 this season,” said Harbison, who guided Nutley to a 22-7 mark in 2019. “We were really excited about the season and we’re still hopeful. I really hope we can get on the field. It would be especially good for our seniors.”

By mike051893

Entering his 34th season as head softball coach, Caldwell High's Mike Teshkoyan has a new coach on staff and a lot of concerns as to whether there will be a season this spring

Mike Teshkoyan has literally seen it all in nearly 35 years of coaching softball and soccer, at Caldwell High School.

And now, as he begins his 34th season on the diamond, Teshkoyan readily admits he has no idea if his team will even see the field for a high school game in 2020.

Mike Teshkoyan (far left) and his brother Mark (far right) celebrated another good season in 2018.

“I have no idea,” said Teshkoyan, when asked if the current pandemic will keep his team, and every other team, off the athletic fields this spring in New Jersey high school athletics. “Obviously, I hope we can get some games in.”

Teshkoyan has guided Caldwell to seven Essex County Tournament championships and nearly 700 victories in softball. Combined, he and his brother Mark have accounted for over 1,000 coaching wins in softball and soccer, all at Caldwell.

Mark Teshkoyan is now retired from coaching, but Mike continues his coaching prowess with a new assistant coach, Mickayla Romeo, along with returning coach Amanda Best.

Mike Teshkoyan addresses his team after winning his 600th career game, in 2014.

Romeo and Best (the former Amanda Paxson) were teammates at Manhattan College and could be the eventual new faces of softball coaches at Caldwell.

Having seen literally every possible scenario as a head coach, Teshkoyan admits he has no answers for 2020. Nevertheless, he’s holding out hope that the Chiefs can play some games, before the end of the school year.

The Teshkoyans accounted for over 1,000 wins in 2017.

The practice season had started well for Caldwell, on March 6. Thirty players came out for the team, which will have a varsity and junior varsity entry.

There are three senior leaders in Nicolette Luzzi, a shortstop, right fielder Alexa Vastola and Sofia Condorelli, the designated player.

Long an advocate of team building, Teshkoyan liked what he was seeing from the team.

The 2020 Caldwell softball handbook tells it all , about team unity.

“We always try to do different things to have the team bond,” said Teshkoyan. “The kids were writing notes, encouraging each other. The notes would go into bags and the eventually, the kids would see the messages.”

The coach also admits he feels bad for the seniors, not just at Caldwell, but throughout the state.

“They shouldn’t have to miss their senior year,” said Teshkoyan. “You only have one senior year. I hope we can salvage something for them this year. It would mean a lot to the team.”

Caitlin Cetrulo (left) and Nicolette Luzzi should be key players on this year’s Caldwell team.

The juniors on the roster are Erin McCann (2B), Carina Whiting (CF), Nina Andrews (3B), Sarah Nichols (LF), Casey Sheehan (IF) and Cara Handley (OF).

Caitlin Cetrulo (1B), Erica Luzzi (P) and Ava Pannullo (OF) are the sophomores while the freshmen are Lauren Sanderson (C) and Shayne Stafford (IF).

Winning seasons have long defined Caldwell High softball, and Teshkoyan is optimistic his team can have another good year.

Now, it’s just a matter of getting back on the field.

By mike051893

IHA's Fasano, happy to be discussing softball, looks ahead and stays positive

She answered the phone on March 21 and sounded upbeat.

Diana Fasano, Immaculate Heart Academy’s head coach since 2016, was just happy to talk about softball.

IHA head coach Diana Fasano (second from right) and assistant coahc Ali Bryan (wearing red shirt) hope to share some good times with their players in 2020.

“I didn’t realize how nice it would be to just talk about the team and what we hope to accomplish this year,” said Fasano.

Like many in her job, Fasano knows the greater good revolves around people being healthy.

Fasano (front row, right) and her team a few years ago. Everyone hopes to be able to take team photos again, soon.

“We’ve never seen anything like this, that’s for sure,” said Fasano. “I’m hoping for the best for these kids. It would be great to see them play some games.”

On the field, the prognosis was pretty good for IHA, before the NJSIAA shut down athletics for the time being. Practice began on March 6, with a good turnout of players as well as good weather in the Northeast. The team was getting a lot of quality work in, during practice.

Ryleigh White (left), here with good friend Mia Faieta, in 2018, hopes to be pitching again for IHA before heading to the University of Texas this fall.

There was also a trip to Florida, which was scheduled for last week, but that, of course, was cancelled.

“At first, we thought with the Florida trip cancelled, we could try and get scrimmages in New Jersey,” said Fasano. “But that all changed, too.”

Ryleigh White will trade in her IHA blue for Texas burnt orange this coming fall.

On the field, the Eagles were progressing well.

“We have three seniors, Ashlyn Corra, Ryleigh White and Cat Thomas,” said Fasano. “They were really taking on the leadership role. It was great to see them do that. We were really excited.”

Thomas, a first baseman and pitcher, plans to play at Rowan University this fall while White, a pitcher and designated hitter, is headed to the University of Texas. Corra has been a standout third baseman for the Eagles.

Read more about Thomas’ college choice, here. https://mikelamberti.wordpress.com/2019/10/24/ihas-cat-thomas-will-play-collegiate-softball-at-rowan-university-starting-next-fall-a-natural-born-leader-according-to-coach-fasano-cat-will-pursue-a-career-in-medicine/

Ryleigh White and Cara Kochakian hope to be playing for IHA again in 2020.

IHA had a very good season in 2019, finishing 24-2, with 17 shutouts Because of the program’s rich heritage, competing for a state championship every year is second nature in Westwood.

“I thought a 24-2 record was pretty good,” said Fasano, who has a 106-14 record as head coach, along with two Non-Public A championships (2016 and 2017), the first Tournament of Champions title in 2017, a Bergen County crown, in 2016 and four straight Big North titles. “But the expectations here are always high, and that’s the way it should be.”

Ryleigh White and Diana Fasano each enjoyed milestones in 2019.

White, of course, has been a dominant pitcher for three years. She allowed just 40 hits in 136 innings of work last year while striking out 277 and walking 28. She’s also been a standout at the plate, with nine homers last year and a penchant for the long ball since coming to IHA as a freshman in 2017.

Cat Thomas has had a tremendous career at IHA.

Thomas also hits with power and is a solid pitcher. Corra swings the bat effectively and can hit to all fields.

The junior class includes Gracie Fasanella, a shortstop, third baseman Lauren Montgomery, outfielder Gianna Stirone and utility player Sarah Zampino.

Happy times at IHA. Let’s hope there’s more in 2020.

The sophomores are shortstop Cara Kochakian, Sophia Miller, a catcher, Jocelyn Moody, a pitcher and utility player, outfielder Gabrielle Park and second baseman Jessica Guanci.

A strong freshman class includes six players in catchers Emily Eckert and Anabella Martino, first baseman Natalia LoCurto, Sophia Noriega, a pitcher and outfielder, second baseman Chelsea Lapp and middle infielder Noelie Urbaniak.

Kochakian, who started at shortstop as a freshman last season, is recovering from a knee injury. Fasano hopes she can return to the lineup in late April, assuming, of course, there’s a season to return to.

“We’re putting the pieces together,” said Fasano. “Part of coaching is putting the right kids in the right position. We have some really talented younger kids and the team is excited about having a big year. But now, we just have to wait and see.”

Fasano’s coaching staff includes Ali Bryan and newcomer Lisa Graf.

By mike051893

Essex Softball: Columbia's rising program earned it a promotion to SEC's American Division in 2020; Coach Smith hoping this year's seniors get a chance to play, soon

This was supposed to be the year Columbia High’s softball program would take that giant leap.

Coming off an excellent season in 2019, which included an appearance in the state sectional championship game, after defeating the top seeded squad in the semifinals, the Cougars were promoted to the Super Essex Conference’s (SEC) American Division, where it would play an ultra-competitive schedule.

Columbia Coach Cliff Smith with one of his seniors, Alexa Stephan, back in 2018. Stephan missed the 2019 season with a knee injury and now, the 2020 campaign is up in the air for the entire program.

Columbia was 16-12 last year, the second straight winning season for the Maplewood/South Orange-based school.

Head coach Cliff Smith, one of Essex County’s outstanding young softball coaches, was, like many of his colleagues, fired up for a big year in 2020.

But then came a world-wide pandemic.

“I wish we were getting ready for opening day,” said Smith, himself an educator and former standout baseball player at Seton Hall Prep, where, as the team’s catcher, formed a battery with Rick Porcello. “Unfortunately that is not the case. I really hope, especially for my group of nine seniors, that they have somewhat of a season to play this spring.”

Hudson Hassler is a talented senior shortstop.

Smith joins a long list of coaches in Northern New Jersey, and I’m sure state-wide, who empathize with the senior class. At Columbia, those kids are a main reason for the program’s resurgence.

“This season has the chance to be a very special one for us,” said Smith. “We’re returning seven out of nine starters from a team which made it to a sectional final last season. We got moved up to the American Division in the SEC for the first time since the SEC started, which myself and the girls are really looking forward to competing in.”

Coach Smith and his players, in 2018.

Smith’s coaching staff has some new faces in Jen Cruz, Lindsey Clesmere and Nicole Rothenberger.

Two years ago, Columbia started an infield consisting of all sophomores. That team eventually won 16 games. And now, those kids are seniors, and more than anxious to start playing softball.

The Cougars are led by shortstop Hudson Hassler, a hard-hitting player who has tremendous range in the field.

Claire Salinardo, Paige Carlson, Sammi Carlton, Sydney Rednik, Lucy Gagne, Ellie Mischel, Julia Erickson and Alexa Stephan are also a part of a tremendous senior class.

Cougars are hoping to be smiling while playing softball in 2020.

The juniors include Sydney Waldon, Gabby Redfern, Hallie Carlton, Emma Caruso, Amelia Sherman, Quinn Joy and Sophia Noll.

The sophomores are Liza Erickson, Kathleen Wack, Lillie Austin and Lauren Kasdan while the freshmen feature Juliette Licata, Emma Buettner, Madeline Rowell, Charley Halperin, Melody Czukoski, Tess Schram, Casey Slavin, Layla Poli and Olivia Gibbons.

The Cougars had a tremendous end to its season, in 2019. The team defeated top-seeded Westfield, 5-2, in the North 2, Group 4 sectional semifinal before losing in the title game to North Hunterdon.

Smith had said playing in the SEC and scheduling tough out-of-conference games helped prepare his team for the state tournament. Essex County teams, in general, had an excellent run in the state tourney last year, with Cedar Grove advancing all the way to the Tournament of Champions final.

With 2020 coming up, the expectations were outstanding. Practice had started on March 6, and the early signs were good. The weather was unseasonably warm and Smith, who always likes to test his team in scrimmages, had a good schedule in store for the pre-season.

But just a little over a week later, the Coronavirus became big news in the Metropolitan area, closing schools and shutting down local high school athletic teams.

Smith hadn’t decided on his complete varsity and junior varsity roster before the shut down.

Hudson Hassler and Livingston’s Chloe Saperstein are seniors in 2020. Both will play collegiate softball, but want the chance to finish their senior year of high school with one more year on the diamond.

“We have a really nice mix of upperclassmen and a talented group of freshmen,” the coach said. “Hopefully, we get back on the field soon and start playing softball. and bring back some normalcy to these group of girls.

“I know I need it as well.”

By mike051893

Nutley High's Zullo hoping to get her team on the softball field this spring

Like everyone else who holds the job as a head coach, Luann Zullo has never seen anything like this.

A season which started with so much promise just two weeks ago is now completely up in the air, as the Coronavirus has literally crippled a nation.

While New Jersey high school softball may not have significance outside the immediate area, Zullo, Nutley’s head coach for a 22nd season, knows what the game means to her players.

Lorianne O’Connor should be a big part of Nutley’s attack in 2020. Photos by Ingrid DiPasquale.

“We have a great mix of seniors and young players,” said Zullo. “It would really be a shame if these younger kids didn’t get the chance to learn from the seniors. It really would.

“Believe me, I understand this is a serious situation. I get it. As a coach and a teacher, the welfare of the kids I’m around is very important, too.”

Jamell Quiles, who will play college softball at Bloomfield College this fall, is a team captain this spring for Nutley High

When practice had started officially on March 6, the team was looking forward to a few good weeks, before heading to Florida for its annual trip to the Disney complex and five days of scrimmages. The weather in Northern NJ was especially nice, which was unusual for early March. 

“Things were really looking good,” said Zullo. “We had 40 kids out for the team, our coaches were excited, we were thinking big things this season, and then, a week later, it all changed.”

Fallyn Stoeckel, a sophomore, had a tremendous season in 2019.

Coming off an 18-11 season in 2019, which included a berth in the state sectional final, Nutley was returning most of its starters from last year.

Melanie Conca had graduated, and she was our only full-time starter (from 2019),” said Zullo. “Melanie was a tremendous player for us and Courtney Wilde, of course, was outstanding, but she missed most of last year (with a broken leg).”

Wilde now attends Rutgers University, where she will play softball while Conca is a freshman at Connecticut College and plays for the women’s ice hockey team. 

A little less than a year ago, it was a typical ‘Senior Day’ at Nutley High.

With Conca graduated, Zullo planned to move Jamell Quiles to shortstop. Quiles is one of five seniors on this year’s team, and is a team captain this year, along with Brianna Cruz. The other seniors are Cecelia Mielnicki, Alexa Hergenhan and Isabella Fogle.

The juniors are Julia Ciccone, Samantha Daly and Lorianne O’Connor; while the sophomore class features Nikki Cicchetti, Lia DeMaio, Jenna Garner, Sydney Hess and Fallyn Stoeckel. 

The freshmen are Mia DiPiano, Giuliana Fazio, Gianna Lembo and Robin Niland.

Zullo’s coaching staff includes Mike DiPiano, Breanna DeMaio, Tina Smith, Michelle DiPiano, Stephanie Ruffo and Brielle Cosentino Riccardi. DeMaio, Smith (the former Tina DeFalco), Michelle DiPiano and Ruffo all played high school softball for Zullo, at Nutley.

Lia DeMaio, a sophomore, is looking forward to a big season.

The future is very much in the air for the 2020 New Jersey high school softball season, and Zullo knows it.

“It’s out of our hands,” the coach said. “We’re just hoping the kids will get a chance to play.”

By mike051893

Cedar Grove High softball hopes to continue its dominance, with a talented senior class, led by Kubu, Cicala, Coletta, Weinstein and Taylor

In 2019, Cedar Grove finished the season as the number one ranked public high school, in softball.

The Panthers accomplished that lofty feat by advancing to the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title game, before losing to powerful Donovan Catholic, at Seton Hall University.

A year later, there are a lot of familiar faces returning to head coach Nicole Velardi’s team. And while graduation took its toll, there is still plenty of reason for optimism.

Gianna Kubu and Jules Cicala were all smiles in November, 2019, along with coach Nicole Velardi, after making their college choices.

That was, until the crisis which has rocked the nation, in the form of Corona, which escalated just a few days after the start of practice for the spring high school teams in New Jersey.

And now, Velardi, like so many others, has no idea if her team will ever get on the field this spring.

Jules and Mia shared a lot of good times playing softball for the Panthers.

“Obviously, I don’t know,” said Velardi, who is beginning her fifth year as head coach and sixth season with the program. “I’m hoping, especially for our seniors.”

Velardi had a standout high school career playing softball at Belleville, and then excelled on the collegiate level at Caldwell College. She began her coaching career in 2015 as an assistant at Cedar Grove, as the Panthers won its first of three Group 1 titles in a five-year span.

Jules and Gianna have been teammates for a long time.

Velardi was elevated to head coach in 2016 and guided Cedar Grove to a pair of Group 1 crowns (2017 and 2019) as well as three straight sectional titles (2017-2019) and and Essex County Tournament championship in 2018. Cedar Grove also played in two of the first three Tournament of Champions. In both instances, it lost to the eventual champion.

The assistant coaches are once again Pete Velardi, Cheryl Marion and Ed Capozzi.

A big part of the most recent success at Cedar Grove was the play of pitcher Mia Faieta, who put up some tremendous numbers from 2016-2019. She’s now playing at St. John’s University.

Cedar Grove would love to celebrate again this spring.

Among the returning players are talented seniors Gianna Kubu, Jules Cicala, Alyssa Coletta, Chloe Weinstein and Brittney Taylor. Cicala, a catcher and Kubu, an outfielder, will play in college this fall, at Post and Hartford Universities, respectively.

Read more about Cicala and Kubu here.



Coletta is a first baseman, Weinstein an outfielder and Taylor plays at third base.

“All of our seniors have been a part of some successful teams,” said Velardi. “I know they want the chance for another big season.”

The junior class features Sam Ryan, Maria Kelly, Paige Lemongello and Katie Peterson. The sophomores are Paige Scheid, Mia Nardiello, Keanna Grande, Talia Recenello and Melanie Heim. The freshmen are Vanessa Messinger, Sara Rowland, Valentina Carpinelli and Madison Lemongello.

While the team is talented, the numbers on the roster are small.

“We have 18 kids, so we won’t be able to have a junior varsity team, which is unfortunate,” said Velardi. “We’ll continue working with the kids on the younger level and hope to get the numbers up, for next year.

“Right now, I just want to see our kids playing again.”

By mike051893