MAPLEWOOD, NJ – When a team with potential gets off to a poor start, that can be discouraging for the coaches as well as the players.
But for Nutley/Columbia, a new co-op high school ice hockey team in the tough New Jersey Interscholastic League, that’s far from the case. Despite dropping its first six games, the team has been fairly competitive.
“Heck, in our very first game against a quality Millburn team, we had a 5-2 lead,” said coach Andy Surowiec, who was a fine player in his days at Clifton High School. “But they came back with five straight goals to beat us, 7-5.
“I told the kids after that game, that in order to be successful, they have to work hard for all 45 minutes of play. If you let down in the final period, bad things will happen.”
Columbia, which is involved in league play for the first time in school history, has spotlighted several key players for the team. In all, seven Cougars are suiting up for the team, which hopes to make a run at the NJIHL’s Kelly Cup in mid-February.
Jack Breagy, a senior defenseman, has been the best of the CHS kids on the varsity roster. The youngster showcases great skills on the ice.
“He reminds me of a kid we had last winter, Dan Caputo,” remarked Surowiec. “Dan could do a lot of things to help us win, and Jack has that same kind of ability. He’s fast on the ice, he can contribute on offense as well as defense, and he has a real passion for the game.”
Eli Verdun, a junior forward, and Zach Fagin, a freshman forward, have been two other CHS kids who have stood out in the early going.
“Eli is a hard worker and he doesn’t mind throwing his body around,” said the coach. “Zach is a very good skater and he has a hard shot.”
The other youngsters from Columbia on the team include senior defenseman Dexter Carlin, sophomore forward Alex David, freshman goalie Oliver Tauscher, and freshman defenseman James Gonon.
Gonon’s father, Eric, was instrumental in helping to get the Maplewood school involved in the sport. Larry Busichio, the CHS Athletic Director, has been very supportive, right from the start.
“We’ve already gotten great fan support,” expressed Eric Gonon, who grew up in Rhode Island rooting for Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins. “Hockey is a great sport, and it’s nice to see guys from our school involved in the game. I know my son really enjoys competing for Coach Surowiec.”
Surowiec thinks that Tauscher is a capable back-up for starting netminder Johnny Matrona, who is only a sophomore. Gonon has gotten his shifts on defense, and is expected to blossom into a fine player for Nutley/Columbia.
Matrona, who has been pretty consistent so far, is one of the top kids from Nutley High on the team. Other strong players from Nutley include senior forward Ryan O’Mara, senior forward Mark Frade, and promising sophomore defenseman Joe Melillo.
“Ryan is really our key guy,” said Surowiec. “He has football size and he’s very physical on the ice. I think in our first few games he had five goals and two assists.”
Frade is a very versatile player because he can also contribute as a defenseman. Melillo, who came on strong in the second half of the 2016-17 campaign, is effective on both ends of the ice. And he can be very physical, just like O’Mara.
“All of our kids mesh together,” said Surowiec. “They know they have to work together in order for us to be successful. A big key in this sport is to be as disciplined as possible. And you have to work hard on each shift.”
One other interesting player from Nutley on the squad happens to be a girl, junior Isabel Fontanals. According to her coach, she’s a very good defenseman.
“Isabel is smart with the puck, and she can certainly handle the stick,” praised Surowiec.
Nutley/Columbia, which will be competing in the Essex County Holiday Tournament at Codey Arena in West Orange, showed its ability on defense in a 3-1 loss to Scotch Plains-Fanwood. The team was in that contest for all 45 minutes of action.
Some challenging tilts down the road include a battle against Millburn on Jan. 12 at Codey Arena, and other game at Codey on Jan. 27 against Verona/Glen Ridge, which probably has one of the best co-op squads in the state.
“All we need is some wins to build up our confidence,” summed Surowiec.
ICE NOTES – Eric Gonn’s daughter, Jessie, a senior at CHS, competed at one time for the Cougar swimming team. For Eric Gonn, his top thrill in hockey was seeing Boston beat the Rangers in the 1972 Stanley Cup finals… League play in N.J. began in the winter of 1958-59.