Nutley hockey team enjoying sensational season
By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
In 2011, the Nutley High School hockey team started to struggle just a bit. With a lineup featuring mostly sophomores, the Maroon Raiders owned a 2-6-1 record.
But at that point, head coach Eric Puzio saw the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
“We started to gel as a team,” Puzio said. “We started to gain confidence.”
That team made it to the New Jersey Interscholastic Hockey League North championship game against Montclair Kimberley Academy and made the NJSIAA Public B state playoffs.
Turn the clock ahead two years.
The Maroon Raiders are now a dominant force in New Jersey high school hockey. They currently own a sensational 16-1-3 record, thanks to victories over Millburn by a score of 11-2 Friday and Montclair by a 5-2 final on Saturday.
They are currently ranked No. 19 in the entire state by one statewide poll.
“The biggest thing I can say about this group is that they’re on a mission,” Puzio said. “They have been that way since last year ended. They have worked through the offseason, trying to fine tune and not squandering any chances. The season is still young and we have a long way to go, but we like where we are right now.”
It’s not bad for a team from a small town that doesn’t even have a hockey rink.
“It’s tough for us to find time to practice,” said senior captain Dave Fierro, one of the state’s leading scorers with 26 goals and 11 assists. “We’re having a good year. The streak we’re on is unreal to think about. I knew we would have a good year, but I didn’t expect it to be this good.”
Puzio was asked about the reason for the Maroon Raiders’ success.
“I think a lot of it has to do with experience,” Puzio said. “Our kids have all been through it. Most have been playing together for three or four years. It was only a matter of time before we hit our stride.”
Puzio believe the turning point came earlier in the season, when the Maroon Raiders faced perennial power West Essex.
“We fell behind 3-0,” Puzio said. “In other years, Nutley teams would have mailed it in from that point against a good team like West Essex. But this year, this team fell behind and even when things looked bleak, they fought like crazy and tied the game at 3-3 with 15 seconds left.”
The game ended in a tie, but Puzio knew at that point, he had the makings of a special team.
“I knew that they would never give up,” Puzio said. “I chalk that up to experience. I have guys who played with the varsity since they were freshmen, so they’ve played a lot of hockey together.”
It helps when you have a standout player between the pipes.
Junior Alec Astorga is the Maroon Raiders’ premier goalkeeper. He’s a returning All-Essex County and All-Group III goalie who has a 1.03 goals against average this season and has surrendered just 28 goals in 20 games.
“On any given night, we have a good shot to win with Alec in goal,” Puzio said. “I think he’s one of the best, if not the best, goalie in the state.”
The Maroon Raiders are solid defensively with junior captain Anthony Gandolfi leading the way. Gandolfi, an All-NJIHL selection last year, has scored three goals and dished off for nine assists this season.
The defense also features junior Justin Sousa, junior Matt Apito, junior Tim Render, sophomore Angelo Gaeta and freshman Greg O’Connell.
“They’re getting a lot of work,” Puzio said. “They’re doing a great job and gaining experience.”
Notice one key fact about the Maroon Raiders’ defensive corps. There’s not a senior in the bunch, meaning they all return in unison next season.
“That’s not a bad place to start,” Puzio said.
Fierro is the senior captain who drives the Maroon Raiders’ bus.
“We go as far as Dave takes us,” Puzio said. “He’s the anchor to the entire team.”
Fierro is also the school’s all-time leading scorer with 124 points, breaking the former record by more than 40 points.
“He’s shattered that record,” Puzio said. “It’s amazing to have Dave as part of our history now.”
Senior right wing Will Paro is on the same line with Fierro. Paro has 10 goals and 17 assists.
“Dave and Will work very well together,” Puzio said.
Junior Michael Conca joins Paro and Fierro on the Maroon Raiders’ top line.
The second line features sophomore center Michael Frade, who has seven goals and 15 assists, along with Richie LaFuria (11 goals, 11 assists) and junior Ryan Demgard (10 goals, six assists).
“We’re getting production from all over,” Puzio said.
Others to contribute include freshman Zachary Vaughan, junior Matt Basile, junior Ryan Parigi, junior Jake Giordano and senior Pat Scott.
“All the kids play decent roles up front,” Puzio said. “It’s so important that they play together all the time. Some play on the same travel hockey team. They do their offseason conditioning together. We’re seeing the benefit of that now.”
Puzio said that he is pleased with the sizzling start.
“I’m really proud of the kids,” Puzio said. “It’s been amazing. I just hope that the community can embrace them as well. I understand Nutley is not a hockey town. But we have a good hockey team. We want people to come and support these kids. They deserve all the credit in the world for beating some ranked teams this year and helping to put the program on the map.”
Puzio was asked if it was a breakthrough season for the Nutley hockey program.
“I think it has to be,” Puzio said. “This year, we want to push it as far as we can go. They’ve all bought in. We’re playing for pride, playing for the Nutley hockey alumni who never got a chance like this. Hopefully, we can keep it going.”
The Maroon Raiders have a handful of regular season games left, then begin play in the McInnis Cup playoffs Feb. 18-20. The Non-Public B state tournament begins Feb. 26.
“Our goal is to have a home game in the state playoffs,” Puzio said. “I feel great about this team’s chances. If we can stay injury-free, we’ll have a chance, because we have a good defense and the best goalie in the state.”
“This year, we’re really looking forward to the state playoffs,” Fierro said. “We know we can do this.”
Losing only once in 20 games can do that for a team.