After spending the last six years coaching several different youth baseball teams through his successful Morris County Cubs program out of Randolph, former Major League Baseball outfielder Pete Zoccolillo was looking for a different challenge.
He seems to have found that challenge as the new head coach at Morris Catholic.
The 35-year-old Zoccolillo, a resident of Mount Olive, was officially named as the new baseball coach, replacing the school’s athletic director, Kevin Murray, who retired from coaching at the end of the 2012 season.
“I wanted to get back into baseball at a higher level,” Zoccolillo said. “Having the Morris County Cubs has kept me in the game, but I thought coaching high school would be a good step for me.”
Zoccolillo, who spent part of the 2003 season with the Milwaukee Brewers, was an All-American at Rutgers University when he was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1999. He moved his way up the ranks and spent time with the Brewers in 2003.
He signed as a free agent with the Texas Rangers and spent the 2004 season at Class AAA Oklahoma City, enjoying his best professional season with a .293 batting average, 23 homers and 93 RBI.
Zoccolillo’s last professional season was with Class AAA Memphis in 2005.
He was set to play another season of organizational baseball in 2006, signing with the Colorado Rockies, after playing for Italy in the 2006 World Baseball Classic.
“That was perhaps the greatest thrill of my baseball life,” Zoccolillo said. “I was on the same team with Mike Piazza and getting pep talks in the bathroom stalls from Tommy Lasorda.”
However, after the World Baseball Classic, Zoccolillo decided that he just didn’t have it in him to have another year of minor league baseball.
“At the time, my wife (Denise) was pregnant,” Zoccolillo said. “I had a lot on my plate. I didn’t want to have another year in Triple A, so I decided to retire. I went out on my own ticket. I called it a day.”
At the age of 27, Zoccolillo walked away from playing, but didn’t give up on the game.
With the help of his brother-in-law Mike Dzurilla, Zoccolillo initiated the Morris County Cubs program for boys ages 10-to-16 and have a facility, called RBIs in Randolph, where approximately 80 youngsters play baseball all year round.
In fact, Zoccolillo just returned from the Wide World of Sports Facility in Orlando, where the Morris County Cubs won the Rawlings Invitational U16 team title, featuring several Morris County residents on the roster.
Zoccolillo had made contact with Murray, expressing interest in the coaching position after Murray retired.
“I had spoken with Kevin Murray and told him that I thought I would be a good candidate for the job,” Zoccolillo said. “I was very close to some of the kids already in the program. I thought it was a good fit.”
Zoccolillo comes from good coaching stock. His father, Al, was a former high school coach who later went on to become the head coach at both Concordia College and Iona College. Al Zoccolillo won more than 500 games as a college coach and retired as Iona’s all-time leading victory leader. The elder Zoccolillo coached current St. Louis Cardinals closer Jason Motte during his days at Iona.
“Once I got my life settled, I always thought coaching was a good route for me, considering what my father did,” Pete Zoccolillo said. “I knew Coach Murray. I know he’s laid the ground work for me. We have the same ideas as far as coaching goes, harping on fundamentals. I’m going to continue to do what he was doing and go from there.”
Murray was pleased to announce his replacement. Murray has pledged to remain on as the school’s athletic director.
“We at Morris Catholic are very proud to have Pete as our new baseball coach,” Murray said. “In my opinion, anyone who played for (Rutgers head coach) Fred Hill is one who is well versed to coach.”
Zoccolillo said that he owes a lot of his success to Hill.
“Without a doubt, he was a huge influence in my life,” Zoccolillo said of Hill. “In terms of getting us prepared to play pro ball, he was excellent, because he had so many others who went into pro ball. He also helped me get into coaching. He’s a phenomenal mentor. Between Fred Hill and my father, they’re like my two baseball dads. I lived for them and soaked up everything I could from them. I put what I’ve learned from them into the young kids I work with.”
Zoccolillo said that he’s happy to take over the Crusaders, who had a young team that struggled last spring.
“There is a good core group of kids coming back, so that will be a good start of a program,” Zoccolillo said. “There are a good group of experienced kids and a couple of them know me, so they know my coaching style. There’s a good group of kids to lean on. We just have to get everyone together on the same page. I think we’re going to be able to put a good team together.”
One of the first moves Zoccolillo has made is to bring Tim Ziolias, the former Morris Catholic softball coach, to the baseball team and serve as an assistant with the varsity baseball squad.
Of course, Murray won’t be too far away.
“I told him that he’s going to be sick of me, because I’m going to be in his office picking his brain on a daily basis,” Zoccolillo said. “I’m going to lean on him, to learn the ins and outs. He told me that he’s happy to help out.”
Zoccolillo, who lives with his wife, and children Peter, age 6, and Katelyn, age 3, in Mount Olive, works in clinical laboratory sales full-time.
“I couldn’t happier with this challenge,” Zoccolillo said. “It’s just another chapter of my baseball life and another chapter of coaching.”