Two former Essex County, New Jersey high school athletic rivals, Columbia High School in Maplewood, and Nutley High School, will be forming a partnership in the sport of ice hockey next winter.
The Columbia Cougars and Nutley Raiders have seen some tough battles in football, basketball and baseball over the years. On June 7, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association gave their seal of approval to Nutley and Columbia, which had been playing as the Maplewood Hockey Club.
Nutley has had an ice hockey program for many years, but was starting to see dwindling numbers. If they wanted to keep the varsity skating, they would have to start looking for another nearby school to merge the program with. Columbia did not have a varsity program prior to the merger.
Columbia Athletic Director, Larry Busichio told essexnewsdaily.com, “Kids in our school have a real interest in hockey. Heck, in the 1930s, we had a varsity program for a few years. I guess the long-range goal is to have our is to have our own team.”
The past few seasons, many districts have opted for co-op teams. Verona and Glen Ridge have run a solid program in Essex County, while Whippany Park and Hanover Park, which competed under the name Park Regional, have won a few titles in the Morris County Secondary Schools Ice Hockey League. This past season, Newton/Lenape Valley took home the Haas Division Crown in the MCSSIHL.
Nutley Athletic Director, Joe Piro added, “I think combining with Columbia will be a great fit for our program. I think we will be quite competitive this coming season.”
The NutMapSo team had received their approval, from the Nutley Board of Education and the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education on May 15, after being approved by the Super Essex Conference. The June 7, approval by the NJSIAA was the final step needed to pave the way to face off, at the high school level, this coming season.
NutMapSo will practice and play their home games at the Richard J. Codey Arena, in West Orange. Codey Arena is located almost midway between both schools.
The 2017-2018 season will make the 60th Anniversary of league play within New Jersey. Back in 1958-1959, league play for the conference, began with five teams (Livingston, Montclair, West Orange, Morris Hills and Morristown-Beard).
The Nutley/Columbia team will continue to be coached by Raiders’ head coach, Andy Surowiec. Following a slow start last season, Nutley managed finish the year with a 7-13-2 record. During the Kelly Cup Playoffs in the New Jersey Interscholastic Hockey League, they fell to the eventual champions, Governor Livingston.
Surowiec told essexnewsdaily, “Our division will be competitive again this winter, but if we play well on defense, we might be in the hunt for a league title. We did that in the second half of the 2016-2017 season.”
He added, “I hope Columbia can provide us with a goalie. Tim Spitalnik did a great job for us in his senior campaign. He kept us in a lot of games, and that is what you want from any goalie.”
With all the approvals being given, Maplewood Hockey Club leader, Eric Gonon, is planning a few fundraising ideas for the organization.
He told villagegreennj.com, “Unlike the skaters from Nutley, players from Maplewood and South Orange must pay for all associated expenses: ice time, coaches, referees, trainers, equipment, uniforms and transportation. We are looking to raise 20,000 dollars to help reduce our considerable cost per player and to fund scholarships for those families that cannot afford it.”
He also noted that he hopes the South Orange and Maplewood community, along with the hockey community will help support the Maplewood Hockey Club’s car wash, at Columbia High School on Saturday June 24 from 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM.
The team also has a GoFundMe page set up, to help one of the players’ dreams of playing high school hockey can become a reality. The link to the campaign can be found at www.gofundme.com/columbia-high-school-ice-hockey.
This spring, Gonon has also been coaching the NutMapSo team in a league at the Union Sports Arena. The team finished in first place with a record of 8-1-1, earning a bye in the first round of the playoffs.
He told villagegreennj, “Our first game against the winner of a qualifying round game will be Sunday June 18 at 6:10 PM at the Union Sports Arena. It is a great group of guys that is already getting great and playing together very well. We plan on-ice and dry-land training this summer and fall.”
Suroweic also added that the combined team will hold informal workouts at a park in Nutley over the summer, to have the students get to know each other better.
He told essexnewsdaily, “We want to be on the same page in December when we start competing at Codey Arena in West Orange. I know some of the Columbia kids have played club hockey, so they won’t be new to the sport. We should have over 20 kids on the varsity, but I doubt we will be able to field a JV squad.”
This upcoming hockey season, will mark the first time that four championships will take place. Three Public Championships will be awarded, with one Non-Public Championship taking place.