NUTLEY, NJ – When a team finishes a season with a losing record, it’s not the easiest thing to take.
But a strong finish always gives some hope for the following campaign. This winter, that was the case for the Nutley High School hockey team.
At one point in the 2016-17 season, Nutley only had a 2-8-2 mark. But the team played well down the stretch, and won five of its last nine regular season contests. In the opening round of the Kelly Cup playoffs in the N.J. Interscholastic Hockey League, head coach Andy Surowiec’s squad bowed to Governor Livingston, 5-1. But that loss didn’t take away the stretch run by the Raiders.
“I’m proud of the way we performed in the second half of the season,” said Surowiec, who was a fine player at Clifton High and Drexel. “We improved on defense, and learned how to play well in the third period when the game was on the line.”
Nutley’s big win in the second half of the year was a 2-0 decision over Cranford on the road. Strong forechecking was a key in that contest.
“It’s too bad we had to meet Gov. Livingston in the first round of the league playoffs,” said Surowiec, “because we just didn’t match up well against them. In hockey and other sports, you sometimes come across that situation.”
Nutley did not have a JV squad, so all the kids on the varsity had to play at a top level. And Nutley got quality performances from its goalie, defensemen and forwards.
In the nets, senior Tim Spitalnik always kept the team in contention. The determined youngster played at a high level, and had a knack for coming up with big saves at crucial points in games.
On defense, senior captain Dan Caputo was a strong leader. He always held his ground and even contributed on offense, coming up with 14 big goals.
Senior Phil Woodkotch, an assistant captain, junior Mark Frada and budding freshman standout Joe Melillo were also key guys on defense for Nutley.
“Mark really showed a lot of heart,” said the youthful Nutley head coach. “He had to battle through a lot of knee problems. He was a versatile kid because he also contributed at the forward spot.”
On the forward line, junior Ryan O’Mara was always someone to watch. The strong 200-pounder came up with nine goals and added 13 assists.
Senior Gerard LaFiura, another assistant captain, was also a quality forward. He didn’t have big numbers, but no one on the team worked harder on the ice.
Spitalnik’s twin brother, Andrew, also did his part up front. The youngster came up with seven goals, including a game-winner against Verona/Glen Ridge in the waning seconds.
Surowiec, a one-time JV assistant and JV head coach at Seton Hall Prep, admits the ice program at Nutley still has a ways to go.
“At our school, wrestling is the big sport in the winter months,” said Surowiec. “But if we can get the numbers, hockey will continue to grow. Hey, it will be nice to have a kid like Joe Melillo in our program for another three years. He’s just a solid player.”
ICE CHIPS – Surowiec’s old school, Clifton, shares the state record for most consecutive wins at 25. Clifton did that in the 1988-89 season. Surowiec graduated from the Passaic County school in 2005. … This winter was the initial season for Surowiec as the Nutley head coach. He was an assistant coach in 2015-16. … Governor Livingston won the Kelly Cup over favored Millburn. Delbarton, Summit and Bayonne also won Cup titles in the NJIHL.