Nutley/Columbia hockey team has sights on contending for Kelly Cup

Nutley/Columbia players celebrate a goal against Mendham in the Essex Holiday tournament at Codey Arena Dec. 27.
Nutley/Columbia celebrates a goal against Pascack Valley at the Essex Holiday at Codey Arena Dec. 26.
Cooper Fojas shoots against Oratory Prep Jan. 4.
Johnny Matrona makes a kick save against Mendham in the Essex Holiday Dec. 27.
Leo Carillo shoots against Millburn Jan. 11.
Captain Joe Melillo takes the puck out of the zone against Verona/Glen Ridge Jan. 12.
Nutley/Columbia players celebrate a goal against Oratory Jan. 4.
Photos Courtesy of Eric Gonon.
Nutley/Columbia players celebrate another goal against Mendham Dec. 27.

NUTLEY, NJ — After a team wins a championship, the immediate goal is to try and come up with a repeat performance. This winter, that’s been the focus for the Nutley/Columbia high school ice hockey team.

The squad, coached by Andy Surowiec, a former top player at Clifton High School, captured the 2019 McMullen Cup in the New Jersey Interscholastic League, defeating Frisch, 4-2, last February at Richard J. Codey Arena in West Orange.

This season, Nutley/Columbia has moved up a division, and will be vying for the Kelly Cup. For the last two years, Millburn has earned that title.

“It’s a tough division, but if we play our game, we could win the Cup,” said Surowiec. “Verona/Glen Ridge, Cranford, Oratory Prep and of course Millburn will all be in the hunt along with us.”

Nutley/Columbia, which took a 6-6-2 mark into the latter stages of January, has played well for the most part this winter. The team’s only poor outing was a 7-2 setback to Oratory. The top effort was a 2-0 win over Verona/Glen Ridge.

“I think we gained some confidence in the Essex County holiday tournament at Codey,” said Surowiec. “We had a 2-1 record and had good efforts in all three contests.”

For Nutley/Columbia, the key player is senior goalie Johnny Matrona, a youngster from Nutley. He rarely lets in a bad goal, and has a knack for coming up with big saves in crucial spots during a game.

“John moves very well in the nets,” said his youthful head coach.

Matrona’s younger brother, Frank, a sophomore, is a fine forward on the team’s second line. But the talented first line, composed of three players from Nutley, does most of the offensive damage.

Joe Melillo, a talented senior center, is the leader on the first line. His wingers, Justin Devlin and Rocco Albanese, are also dangerous with the puck.

“All three guys can find the net,” remarked Surowiec, who enjoyed playing for legendary Clifton coach Tom Danko.

Among the defensemen, a top player for the squad is Zach Fagin, a junior from Columbia High. Fagin, a converted forward, shows great speed on the ice and handles the puck very well.

Two youngsters from Nutley, Cooper Fojas and Leo Carrillo, are also very strong on defense.

James Gonon, a junior at Columbia, is another consistent defenseman. The other Cougars on the squad are senior forward Alex David and freshmen forwards Trey Gigante, Caleb Degnan and Will Pechman.

“Down the line, hopefully more kids from Columbia will contribute to our team,” said Surowiec. “A co-op team always has to grow, and I think our program has a bright future.

“It would be nice to make a run at a state title down the road, but contending for a league championship is our main objective at this point.”

ICE CHIPS — In the holiday event, the team beat Pascack Valley and Parsippany, but lost to Mendham…

The 2019-20 campaign began Thanksgiving Day weekend and will conclude March 9 with the state finals…

Don Bosco Prep and Westfield also won league titles in 2019 with the Gordon and McInnis Cups…

The team meets Oratory again on Feb. 9 on the road.