VERONA/GLEN RIDGE – In talent-rich Essex County, one of the most successful high school hockey programs over the years has been the one at Verona/Glen Ridge.
Under the guidance of Steve Ruggiero, who is now the manager at Codey Arena in West Orange, the team won two Cup championships in the New Jersey Interscholastic League. And with Ken Lilien at the helm, the team captured the McInnis Cup in 2016, defeating Montclair Kimberley Academy, 4-2, in the title game.
This winter, Verona/Glen Ridge has a good shot to challenge for the Kelly Cup in the NJIHL. In the first week of play, the squad got off to a 1-1-2 start.
“We had a losing record last winter,” said Lilien, “but we were hampered by injuries. I expect pretty good results in 2017-18.”
Lilien has always had a love for the game of hockey, but admits with a smile that his life could be much different today if something had gone right on a late July evening in 2002 in Las Vegas.
At that time, Lilien was the manager for a promising heavyweight boxer named Kirk Johnson, a guy who had a style similar to the legendary Muhammad Ali. Johnson, who was around 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, was very quick in the ring, just like Ali was.
On July 27, 2002, Johnson fought John Ruiz for the WBA heavyweight crown. He appeared to be ahead on points, but in the 10th round, the referee disqualified him for apparent low blows.
“In our corner, we didn’t think that was the case,” said Lilien, who has Ruggiero on his staff as an assistant coach (he won 127 games in his tenure at the school). “But I guess things in life happen for a reason. If Kirk had won that night, maybe I wouldn’t be involved in hockey today.”
Verona/Glen Ridge, one of the state’s more successful co-op programs, interestingly has more kids on its roster from Glen Ridge this season. In past years, that wasn’t the case.
“The kids work well together,” said Lillien, whose team will be involved in the Essex County Holiday Tournament at Codey Arena. “We have good players at every position, so this should be a nice season.”
In goal, GR senior Collin Gilmore is a very steady performer. Lilien likes the fact that the youngster “is so competitive on the ice.”
Among the defensemen, GR senior captain Anton Martino is the leader. Throughout his varsity career, he’s always been very consistent with his game.
Two other good ones in the back are GR sophomore Armaan Rigby, and Verona junior Harrison Keating. “Armaan is a very strong skater,” said Lilien, who is in his fifth year at the helm. “Harrison is a stay-at-home defender, and you like to see that in his position.”
Keating’s twin brother, Jarrod, is one of the top forwards on the squad. He’s very effective on face-offs, and shows ‘great intelligence’ on the ice, according to his coach, who as a youth, competed for the famous Brick Hockey Club.
Other top performers at the forward spot include Verona senior captain Sean DeCandia, GR junior Jake Kuhn, and Ruggiero’s son, Dylan, who is a senior of Verona.
“Dylan doesn’t feel any pressure with his dad as a coach,” remarked Lilien, who attended Lakewood High School. “He works as hard as he can on every shift.”
ICE CHIPS – In the holiday event, the team opens on Dec. 26 against Old Tappan… Forward Chris Bellino was the team’s top player ever, scoring more than 300 points in his career.