Nutley/Columbia ice hockey team enjoying solid season; looks to contend for championships

Columbia HS sophomore Zach Fagin looks to shoot the puck.
Nutley HS junior goalie Johnny Matrona gloves the puck.
Photos courtesy by Eric Gonon
Columbia HS senior co-captain Eli Verdun shoots and scores against Dayton.

NUTLEY/MAPLEWOOD – In the sport of hockey, it often take a while to get good results when a co-op team is formed.

But for the squad at Nutley/Columbia, it’s a much different story. This winter is only the second season for the team, but Nutley/Columbia has an excellent chance of capturing the McMullen Cup in the N.J. Interscholastic League. And even in the state tournament, Nutley/Columbia could be a factor in the A Division bracket.

“I’m very happy with the way our season has gone so far,” said coach Andy Surowiec, who was a fine player at Clifton some 15 years ago. “I think we were only 4-17-1 last winter, but now we’re a team that can compete with just about anyone.”

Nutley/Columbia, which has 19 players on its roster, had a 9-2-3 record through the first three weeks of January. And that includes a 1-0-1 mark against Frisch, which could end up vying for the 2019 McCullen Cup in mid-February at Codey Arena in West Orange.

Nutley/Columbia, which spotlights a roster consisting of kids who are largely students from Nutley, has been strong at every position on the ice. Leading the way has been goalie John Matrona, a junior who attends Nutley High.

“John has been very solid in the nets,” said Surowiec,  who learned a lot about the game from long-time Clifton coach Tom Danko. “He moves very well, and has a knack for coming up with big saves. He’s already had a bunch of shutouts this season.”

In the two games against Frisch, the talented youngster allowed only three goals.

On defense, one of the leaders is a girl from NHS, senior Isabel Fontanals.

“She really is a fine defensive player,” said the youthful head coach. “And she plays tough.”

Along with Fontanals, a couple of other key NHS defensemen are sophomore Cooper Fojas and junior Leo Carrillo. Columbia’s James Gonon also contributes.

“In truth, good defense is the key to winning championships,” noted Surowiec. “I think that’s the case in any sport.”

But Nutley/Columbia is also effective on the offensive end. If the team falls behind, it has the ability to quickly bounce back.

The first line of junior center Joe Melillo, senior left wing Eli Verdun and sophomore right wing Zach Fagin could be one of the top combinations in the state. Both Verdun and Fagin are students at Columbia High.

“I give a lot of credit for the line’s success to Joe,” said the coach. “He’s a converted defenseman, and he’s really handled the position switch quite well.”

Melillo, who has a dangerous shot, had 11 goals and eight assists through the team’s first 14 games.

Verdun, who is one of only three seniors on the squad, had 12 goals and eight assists through 14 games. According to his coach, “he can really motor on the ice.”

Fagin, a fellow Cougar, has as much talent as any player on the roster. The speedster had 11 goals and eight assists through 14 games.

Two other key players up front are another girl, senior Melanie Conca, and budding freshman star Rocco Albanese.

Conca, a top all-around athlete, had four goals and seven assists after 14 contests, while Albanese had 10 tallies to go along with 10 assists.

“Rocco has great hands and displays a fine shot,” remarked Surowiec. “Hey, the kid is very shifty on the ice.

“I think our program has a nice future. We’re ready to go after some championships, believe me.”

NOTE – In N.J., league play began in the winter of 1958-59.