NUTLEY/MAPLEWOOD, NJ – Since league hockey began during the winter of 1958-59, teams in Essex County have done quite well.
As a case in point, the oldest hockey trophy in the sport is the Gordon Cup in the N.J. Interscholastic League, and Seton Hall Prep has captured that title a record nine times.
The latest Essex club to capture a league title on the ice, is Nutley/Columbia, which turned the trick last Saturday evening, Feb. 16, at Codey Arena in West Orange. The co-op team, which is only in its second year of play, topped defending champ, Frisch, 4-2, in the McMullen Cup final. During the regular season, Nutley/Columbia had a 1-0-1 advantage.
“We knew it would be a tough game,” said head coach Andy Surowiec, who played scholastic hockey at Clifton High. “We wanted to try and control the offensive zone, and we did that for the most part. Our defense, led by goalie John Matrona, played well, just like the kids up front.”
Nutley/Columbia, which improved to 12-5-3 with the win, was led by one of its female players, Melanie Conca. The determined youngster, who also excels in girls soccer and softball, had two goals. Conca, who is “a very smart player,” according to her coach, had seven goals and 13 assists heading into the NJSIAA Tournament.
The game was tied at 2-2 entering the final period, but Conca and CHS senior standout Eli Verdun came through with key tallies to break the deadlock. Verdun, who connected on a tip-in, had 18 goals and 12 assists entering the state tourney.
Forward Zach Fagin, a sophomore from CHS, has also been clutch with 12 goals and nine assists. Defenseman James Gonon and forward Alex David also represented CHS.
Throughout the 2018-19 campaign, a number of players have stepped up for the team. Rocco Albanese, a budding freshman standout, had one of the goals last Saturday.
In the first game of the evening, Westfield upset Summit, 6-5, for the McInnis Cup. The day before, Don Bosco Prep beat perennial state powerhouse Delbarton, 5-3, for the Gordon Cup, and Millburn, coached by former Seton Hall Prep star Brandon Doria, edged Cranford, 2-1, for its second straight Kelly Cup.
“All four championship games were very competitive,” said Steve Ruggiero, the manager at Codey Arena. “I think all the fans who came out enjoyed the action.”
Surowiec was confident heading into the season, even though the squad managed only a few wins a year ago.
“We had some quality kids returning, and the experience from last season was a plus,” said the youthful coach. “Heck, we looked pretty good in our first few practices. Right away I liked the kind of depth we had up front.”
In a game in January, the team gained a great deal of confidence by playing well in a loss to West Essex, a perennial county powerhouse. Nutley/Columbia was primed for the league playoffs and opened by romping past West Orange, 10-0. West Orange’s star forward, senior Davey Campbell, was held well in check by Nutley/Columbia.
“All of the kids meshed together,” commented Surowiec. “Sometimes a co-op team takes a few years to get things together, but that wasn’t the case for our club.”
Matrona, who had 17 saves in the tilt against Frisch, was solid all winter. In three games against Frisch, he yielded but five goals.
“We should be strong again next season,” said Surowiec. “We’re elated with what we achieved this winter.”
ICE CHIPS – Columbia interim Athletic Director Ken Mullen and Nutley AD Joe Piro see a bright future for the co-op program…
Nutley/Columbia, seeded 19th, was scheduled to visit No. 14 seed West Windsor-Plainsboro South in the first round of the NJSIAA Public A State Tournament on Feb. 18. The winner will visit No. 3 seed Montclair in the second round Feb. 22.
Photos courtesy of Eric Gonon
Nutley vs. Frisch, McMullen Cup final, Feb. 16, at Richard J. Codey Arena in West Orange.