By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
After losing nine seniors to graduation and a handful of other returning letter winners to junior hockey, Nutley head hockey coach Eric Puzio didn’t know how his team would fare in the 2013-14 season.
“I figured we could come back and at least be competitive,” Puzio said. “Obviously, losing the guys we did put a tremendous amount of pressure on the kids coming back. It was a big challenge for us. We had to try to fill in people to find some offense.”
With better than 65% of their scoring from a year ago gone – and the standout goalie Alec Astorga off to play junior hockey at Centenary, Puzio asked his returning players to increase their offensive workload.
“We had some big question marks, especially offensively,” Puzio said. “It was going to be tough replacing all that scoring.”
The Maroon Raiders got fortunate in finding a replacement for Astorga between the pipes.
Sophomore Joe Hoarle was spectacular in goal, collecting almost 500 saves on the season while logging a save percentage of 94%.
“He stepped up and did a great job,” Puzio said of Hoarle, who had a miniscule 0.90 goals against average inside the league. “He had a streak this season of 288 minutes without surrendering a goal. He was a pleasant surprise. We had big hopes for Joe, but he went far and beyond our expectations.”
Hoarle helped Nutley post a 13-9-2 record, finishing second in the North Division once again to Montclair Kimberley Academy.
The Maroon Raiders were blessed by a solid senior contingent in 2013-14, including defenseman Justin Souza.
“He was named captain of the team by his peers and he took to the role, both on and off the ice,” Puzio said of Souza.
Souza tied the school record by amassing six assists in one game against West Orange.
“He did a great job in leading this team this year,” Puzio said. “He really came into his own thuis year. He was a huge asset to the club.”
Another key defenseman is senior Tim Render.
“He’s a four-year letter winner,” Puzio said. “He logged in for a ton of minutes and made very few mistakes out there.”
Junior Angelo Gaeta was the team’s most improved player.
“He was a big surprise,” Puzio said. “I was thrilled to see him play the way he did this year.”
Greg O’Connell and Joe Fontanals are two sophomore defensemen who will only get better with more playing time in the future.
Senior Rich LaFuira was the team’s leading point scorer.
“He would simply take over some games,” Puzio said.
“When he did, he was hard to stop. He has a constant motor that just keeps on going.”
Senior Mike Conca is another center and another team captain.
Senior winger Mike Parigi is the Raiders’ workhorse, the grunt guy you throw into the corner and you know he’s coming away with the puck.
“He did a lot of the things that don’t show up on a stat sheet,” Puzio said. “He was a big target in front of the net.”
Junior Mike Frade is the lone underclassman who was a captain this season.
“He’s next in line to be a 100-point scorer for us,” Puzio said.
Others up front include sophomores Danny Render, Zach Vaughan, Brendan McCormick and freshman Gerard LaFuira (Rich’s younger brother).
“Because of the depth we had, we were able to throw three lines at teams,” Puzio said. “We never had that before.”
Puzio credited the hard work of seniors Eric Fisher and Jake Giordano for keeping the Maroon Raiders in check.
“Eric was on a line that could get up and down the ice,” Puzio said. “Jake was a four-year player for us who was like our little bulldogs, getting some big hits for us.”
Junior Milo Spagnola quickly became a crowd favorite. Freshman Tim Spitalnik was the back-up goalie to Hoarle.
All in all, it was a solid season for Nutley, a team that survived its share of trials and tribulations and still made a playoff run.
“We were picked to finish fifth in our league in the preseason and we finished second (to MKA once again) with 11 wins,” Puzio said. “I’d say it was a pretty rewarding season. I’m proud of their effort.”