ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — No part of daily life has been untouched by the COVID-19 pandemic over the last year, including high school sports. Fall and winter seasons have looked a lot different this year, with fewer spectators, no state tournaments and schedules changing on a dime due to coronavirus safety protocols. That’s why the coaches and players on the combined Nutley–Columbia–Bloomfield ice hockey team are so happy to be playing at all. After a two-week break because of a COVID exposure, the joined Raiders, Cougars and Bengals were back on the ice against Cranford on Feb. 20.
“It’s definitely different than anybody is used to,” head coach Dave Macri said in a phone interview on Feb. 16. “We’re just happy to be playing hockey. Any day we get on the ice is a good day. You have to take it one day at a time.”
The season is happening amid another change for the team as well — it’s Macri’s first year as head coach. It’s also his first time at the helm of a high school program, but as the longtime coach of the Nutley–Clifton Hockey Club, he was already familiar with the area and some of the players.
“I knew a few of them,” Macri said. “It’s fun for me to see the players now, when I knew them when they were 10 years old. They’re almost adults now.”
Competing in the Kelly Division, the middle tier of New Jersey high school hockey’s hierarchy, Nutley-Columbia-Bloomfield competes against tough teams, Macri said. As of press time on Feb. 19, their record stands at 3-5.
“They’ve been through a lot this year,” Macri continued. “You have to adjust the bar for whatever the circumstances are. They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do.”
Cooper Fojas, a senior from Nutley and the team’s captain, said Millburn and Cranford are games the team always looks forward to, as is the old rivalry game against Montclair Kimberley Academy. In his last season before graduation, Fojas is just as happy as Macri is to be playing.
“It is my last year, so I wish I could have had one more normal season, but I’m glad there’s a season at all,” Fojas said in a phone interview on Feb. 17. “Part of my job is to make sure everyone is comfortable and no one is nervous.”
Nutley is the host school of the joint hockey program, and Columbia students have been able to play on the team for the last four years. Bloomfield is newer, having joined the fold last season. This is the first year that the Bengals have had a player on the team, though. So far, freshman Gavin Waldron is the only one.
“It gives kids a chance to play who normally wouldn’t,” Macri said. “That’s great. When we have dry land practices we’ll move around, one day closer to Columbia and another to Nutley. Some of the players have also known each other before because they played on club teams together.”
Because of the pandemic, virtual learning has been the norm this year. But many players on the team wouldn’t be seeing one another at school every day anyway: They live in four different towns. According to Fojas, it doesn’t make much of a difference.
“Team chemistry has only gotten better since it started,” he said. “We don’t all go to the same school, but I do consider them all my classmates. We have similar experiences.”
As more players from Bloomfield join the team in the future, he expects more of the same.
“I think it will work,” Fojas said. “We figured it out once, so we can do it again. There are some good leaders in the junior class.”
Macri said Fojas has been a leader on and off the ice, along with CHS senior Zach Fagin. James Gonon and Oliver Tauscher are the other seniors on the team.
Aside from being from a combination of schools, the team is also co-ed: There are four girls on the team seeing playing time this year. Sophomore Victoria Rutnik has been a goalkeeper alongside Tauscher, freshman Mallory Albanese has three assists on her stat sheet so far and junior Sophia Carrillo went from being last year’s team manager to being a player now. Freshman Haley Kampner has been on the ice also.
Rounding out the team are C.J. Hannon, Carmine Argenziano, Julian Poole, T.J. Wassman, Tommy Devlin, Andrew Nicolette, Mike Silva, Rocco Albanese, Vijay Vinton, Paul Poplawski, Caleb Diegnan, Frank Matrona, George Dietrich and Will Pechman.
“I don’t really want it to end at all,” Fojas said. “But I want to leave something for the younger players to learn, and win a couple more games.”
Photos Courtesy of Nutley-Columbia Hockey Club