Pete Zoccolillo may be described as the human check mark when it comes to prerequisites for a prospective high school baseball coach.
Zoccolillo, yet another disciple of the Fred Hill School of Baseball, certainly had to wow the administration at Mount Olive High School when they sat down with him for an interview about their varsity baseball coaching opening.
The Rutgers legend and former major league outfielder had already shown impressive success in an earlier stint in the scholastic ranks. And he managed to keep himself deeply entrenched in the game 12 months a year courtesy of his 15-year ownership of the Morris County Cubs Baseball Academy.
Zoccolillo, a Mount Olive resident, received the heads up last Thursday that he was about to become the new Mount Olive head baseball coach and that distinction was made official on Monday during the Mount Olive school board meeting.
“I’m excited,” said Zoccolillo. “I’ve been out of high school coaching for a few years and I’m glad to be back in it. It’s my home town school, so that means a lot to me and the expectations for success are there.”
Zoccolillo replaces Jim McDermott, who led the Mauraders to their first-ever state final berth in 2014 and is rightly credited with turning the program into a winner.
McDermott registered a 129-107-3 record in his nine seasons on the field at Mount Olive — last spring would have been his 10th if not for the pandemic — and he did so in the ruggedly competitive world of Morris County and Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference baseball. His 2014 team went 23-7 and carried a 15-game winning streak straight to the Group 3 championship game, where it fell to Mainland. McDermott’s and the Marauders’ magical 2014 season was capped shortly after when he was bestowed The Star-Ledger’s State Coach of the Year.
Mount Olive should be excited for Zoccolillo’s turn as its head baseball coach because he’s been known to hit the ground running, whether it be in his initial foray into high school coaching at Morris Catholic in 2013 or with his highly successful Cubs travel program. Zoccolillo steered Morris Catholic to the NJSIAA North Jersey, Non-Public B championship in his rookie season before his team fell to Rutgers Prep in the state Non-Public B championship game.
Mount Olive will take the field this season with as many as 15 seniors. These seniors were sophomores in 2019 and many gained varsity experience before they lost their junior campaign in 2020 to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’d love to get back to a state final and win it this time,” said Zoccolillo. “I have big expectations of this team that we can do well in the Morris County Tournament and I expect us to win the conference. We won a sectional title my first year at Morris Catholic and we should always have the goal going into a season that we’ll work hard so we get to play for championships.”
Zoccolillo produced an impressive 67-39 (.632) record during his four years (2013-’16) at Morris Catholic. McDermott leaves a strong group behind and has given Zoccolillo the 411 on his new charges.
“We’re going to be a veteran heavy club,” says Zoccolillo. “Jim did a great job with the program and he’s been amazing to me sharing information on our players. I can’t be more appreciative for what he’s done and how he ran the program. I’m looking to continue what he’s established at Mount Olive.”
Zoccolillo says he expects to meet with his team next week.
“We get one meeting in the pre-season according to the NJSIAA rules,” says Zoccolillo. “We’ll meet the kids by Zoom and introduce our staff. They’ll be told every position is up for grabs. Nothing will be given to anyone coming in. Kids will earn their spots. We will put the best team on the field.”
Zoccolillo has a trio of impressive varsity assistants. Tyler Poulin, a 2015 Randolph grad, will be Mount Olive’s pitching coach. The big righthander was drafted in the 29th round by the Diamondbacks in 2019 out of Quinnipiac College. He was recently released by the organization. “Tyler will take all the knowledge he’s learned in pro ball and share it with our pitching staff,” said Zoccolillo.
Chris Bates, an assistant under McDermott, returns with 24 years experience as a high school coach in baseball and football. He was a four-year starter on the Belmont Abbey College (N.C.) baseball team. Rounding out the staff is Chris Grillo, who provides a nice hometown flavor. Grillo, a 2015 Mount Olive grad, batted .325 in four strong years at Muhlenberg College.
Zoccolillo grew up in White Plains, N.Y. and turned the heads of Hill and his Rutgers staff during his scholastic days. He would go on to smash four single-season batting records and six career batting records during his time in Piscataway. The Chicago Cubs drafted him in the 23rd Round of the MLB Draft in 1999. Zoccolillo reached the majors leagues in 2003 when he played 20 games for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Zoccolillo dipped into a deep well of knowledge in the sport of baseball at a young age. His father, Al Zoccolillo, was a college coach and is Iona College’s all-time winningest baseball coach. At Rugers, Zoccolillo learned the importance of giving undivided attention to details.
“I always thought coaching would be part of my life,” he said. “I took some time off after Morris Catholic. I was looking for the right opportunity. The Mount Olive position opened up and I know the town and the players and wanted to be part of that tradition.”
The late Fred Hill was certainly a New Jersey coaching icon, coaching football, basketball and baseball at the collegiate level before capping his career with a highly successful 30-year run at Rutgers (1984-2013), recording a 941-658-7 record. More importantly, Hill helped guide a stream of athletes into pro ball and coaching. Zoccolillo is yet another branch on that tree.
“A constant his former players talk about is that coach Hill prepared you to play baseball and for life after it,” said Zoccolillo. “That’s something he did for his players and what I always want to do for my players. The way coach Hill carried himself and the way he spoke to us made us earn his trust.”
Zoccolillo’s players can expect to be held to a standard their coach became accustomed to during his college and professional days.
“It’s about holding yourself to a high standard through hard work,” he said. “Our players should carry themselves in a way that represents their team, their families and their school in the best way. I learned that from coach Hill and I know if you teach that, your players will be successful.”
NOTES: While Zoccolillo will tell you it was the overall experience with Rutgers baseball that helped shape the person he’s become, it is worth looking at a couple more of his achievements.
He was an All-Big East selection in each of his four seasons at Rutgers and was named an All-American twice. He set the Big East record for RBI in a season with 72 as a senior in 1999. He batted a gaudy .418 that year.