By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
After struggling somewhat at the end of last season, veteran Nutley High School hockey coach Eric Puzio didn’t know what to expect this season.
The Maroon Raiders did graduate nine seniors and had only three seniors returning for this season. Needless to say, there was a cause for some concern.
“I didn’t think the transformation would happen overnight,” said Puzio, who is in his ninth season as the head coach of the Maroon Raiders. “I thought it might take until midseason for them to gel and get going.”
Well, Puzio didn’t have to wait until the midway mark of the campaign for the winning to begin, because this young group of Maroon Raider ice warriors has been winning from the onset of the season.
After a 2-0 shutout victory over Livingston Saturday afternoon, the Maroon Raiders are an impressive 14-3 and are battling Livingston and Montclair for top honors in their division of the Super Essex Conference.
“The last few years have been really good for us,” Puzio said. “We’re getting a ton of production from a lot of guys. We have about nine forwards we can put out there and about five defensemen. So things are going pretty well.”
But the Maroon Raiders have two excellent net minders as well.
“I think it’s essential to have quality goalkeepers,” Puzio said. “It all starts between the pipes. You can have bad days up front and get a lack of production, but if you have a solid goalie, you have a shot to win.”
Junior Joey Hoarle has been rock solid in net.
“He started for us last year as a sophomore and was the co-MVP of the team,” Puzio said. “He has continued his stellar play for us.”
Hoarle just posted a shutout in a 2-0 win over Livingston Saturday night the Codey Arena in South Orange.
But the Maroon Raiders also have sophomore Tim Spitalnik, who gets a spot start here and there and has been undefeated since he has put on a Maroon Raiders uniform. Spitalnik is 5-0 this season and was 4-0 last year.
Senior defenseman Angelo Gaeta is the mainstay in the Maroon Raiders’ back line. Gaeta, the team’s assistant captain, has been what Puzio dubbed “a shut down defenseman for us.”
“Angelo has become a true leader for us,” Puzio said. “We only have three seniors this season, so Angelo is doing a great job as being a leader. He’s hit his stride this year and played very well.”
Gaeta has four goals and five assists this season.
A pair of juniors, namely Greg O’Connell and Joe Fontanals, has been also solid on the defensive back line.
“Both guys are doing a great job there,” Puzio said.
Sophomore Dan Caputo, a transfer from Don Bosco Prep, junior Sean Giordano and freshman Mark Frade are the rest of the Maroon Raiders’ defensive corps.
Mark Frade’s older brother, Mike, a senior center, has been the Maroon Raiders’ top scorer thus far, collecting an astounding 23 goals and adding 13 assists. The elder Frade is now 10 points shy of 100 for his career at Nutley.
“We’re fortunate enough to have a couple of guys who have tremendous numbers,” Puzio said.
Junior Christian McCue is the left winger on Mike Frade’s line. He has five goals, but an amazing 16 assists this season. Junior Zack Vaughan is the right winger on Frade’s line. He has eight goals and 20 assists, leading the team.
“We’re getting a lot of production from that line,” Puzio said.
It doesn’t end there. Junior Dan Render anchors the team’s second line. Render has scored 15 goals and has 13 assists.
Junior Brendan McCormack has nine goals and eight assists and sophomore Gerard LaFuria has 11 goals and seven assists. “It’s fantastic, the way they’re spreading it out,” Puzio said.
Senior Michael Spagnuolo is the team’s resident grunt player.
“He’s a workman-like guy,” Spagnuolo said. “He is a big ‘rah-rah’ guy. He’s one of the leaders in the locker room. He doesn’t wear the ‘C’ on his chest (like a captain), but the rest of the team follows him.”
Junior Brendan Ruiz fills a role as one who “does the dirty work,” according to Puzio.
Freshman Cullen McCormack, the younger brother of Brendan, has played a big role already with four goals and four assists.
“He has a great future,” Puzio said.
Ryan O’Mara is another freshman who has fit in right away, scoring five goals and collecting three assists.
“He’s playing well and getting good ice team,” Puzio said.
The Maroon Raiders’ losses have come against state powers Montclair Kimberley Academy, Montclair and undefeated Madison.
“We’re in a good standing in the league and right there in the hunt,” Puzio said.
The Maroon Raiders are also in good position for the upcoming state playoffs.
“Everyone is upbeat and everyone gets along,” Puzio said. “That’s the best thing so far.”