CLARK, NJ -  As the 2017 Union County tournament gets underway this weekend, the Arthur L. Johnson High School Crusaders varsity softball team will seek to defend their 2016 title, and will do so with a former student in charge.

Chris Di Nucci, a physical education and health teacher at the school, was officially named the new softball head coach in Jan. 2017. Although a former baseball player, this is Di Nucci’s first season coaching softball.

“I saw the opportunity to become a head coach with a great group of young women and I thought that would be a great opportunity for me,” Di Nucci said. “I thought it was time for me to take a step forward and run my own program.”

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Di Nucci takes over a team that comes to him with a 24-9 record from last year, and county, conference and state championships titles.

“I’m very lucky to have four good assistants,” he said. “I have Coach [Andrea] Ascolese who’s helping me, Coach [Laura] Bundy and her dad [Gary], who helps us out and as well as a former player, coach Amanda Merten. They all do a great job, they give me great input and they’re willing to do anything I ask them to do.”

The team has done well under Di Nucci, holding a 7-5 record on the season, beating strong teams such as Elizabeth High School, Immaculate Heart Academy High School, Cranford High School and Roselle Park High School. The Crusaders enter the tournament as the No. 3 seed.

Di Nucci is a 2009 graduate of Arthur L. Johnson High School and was a three-sport athlete, playing football, track and field and baseball. It was in high school when he realized he wanted to become a physical education teacher.

“I thought it would be cool to have the job,” Di Nucci said. “I love sports and I thought working with kids would be great. I wanted to do some of the same things my teachers and coaches had the ability to do for me. I knew the best way into coaching would be teaching.”

He said his overall goal is to help teenagers grow into young men and women, and he believes he can do that through teaching.

His coaching career began in 2012, with spring track and field. The following year, he added football to his coaching resume, and both winter and spring track and field.

Di Nucci said his philosophy as a coach is to always be honest with kids; especially with what they’re doing right and what they may not be doing right. He always wants to help them correct mistakes and help them become better.

“Playing for Coach Di Nucci was something I really enjoyed as a player,” Andrew Zub, a 2013 ALJ graduate, said. “He showed that he was all-in on not only me as a player and thrower, but as a position group and a team. That is something I really admired about him. He helped me grow as a player and a person.”  

Di Nucci, who continues to coach winter track and field, said he always kept one value close to him as he transitioned from his playing days to coaching.

“All players are different,” he said. “Some players are role-players and some players are leaders. Sometimes your best athletes are your leaders and sometimes they’re not. I think the most important thing for me as a former player and continuing as a coach is that it’s about doing it together as one unit.”

He left the Clark public school district for a full-time teaching position at Bridgewater-Raritan High School in 2013.  While there, he coached football for two seasons and was an integral factor in the team’s back-to-back appearances in state title games against Westfield High School.

Gus Kalikas, Clark’s athletic director, coached Di Nucci when he was a student at ALJ.  Di Nucci said Kalikas inspired him to pursue a career in coaching.

“One of the most satisfying things for a coach, teacher or educator is to see one of their former students or athletes come back and be able to coach them and be able to give back to student-athletes at any school, but even more so, the school they graduated from,” Kalikas said.

“I can’t say I was surprised while he [Di Nucci] was in high school,” he added. “He was always sort of a coach on the field. I’m pleasantly happy Chris is home. He’s going to do great things for our student-athletes.”

His hard work has earned the praise of colleagues at ALJ.

“Coach Di Nucci is what you exactly want in a coach. He’s just a genuine guy,” Johnson football head coach Anthony DelConte said. “He cares about the kids. He’s always out looking to go the extra mile to make these kids the best they can be. I’m lucky to have him on my staff and lucky to call him one of my best friends. He is passionate about everything he does, being a great role model for kids and he tries to be a perfectionist all the time.”

Di Nucci is just happy to be home.

“There’s a little place in your heart and there’s something to be said about coming back home,” Di Nucci said. “There’s just a little more sense of pride, you can say, when you walk the halls that you once walked in as a student, now as a teacher and a coach.”

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