MAPLEWOOD, NJ - After a program merge between Nutley and Columbia High School (CHS), the Nutley-Columbia ice hockey team is ready to take on the 2017-2018 season.

After completing the 2016-2017 season 7-13-2, the Nutley Raiders were joined by a group of players from Maplewood and South Orange, as CHS does not have a high school hockey team.

“It’s a little bit of a learning curve since a lot of these kids haven’t played high school hockey, but they’ve been getting along really well,” Nutley-Columbia Head Coach Andrew Surowiec said in an interview with TAPinto Nutley. “We were pretty low on numbers before the merge, so the majority of the Columbia kids are going to be putting in some good minutes.”

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Last year’s Raiders were led by Danny Caputo, Ryan O’Mara and Gerard LaFiura on offense and Tim Spitalnik in the goal.

Caputo finished his senior season with 14 goals and four assists. LaFiura completed his last year of high school hockey with five goals and six assists. Spitalnik prevented 410 goals as the senior goalie.

O’Mara – who was responsible for 22 points on nine goals and 13 assists as a junior – will be returning as the senior captain.

“He was the leading scorer last year, so we’re hoping he picks up right where he left off and can hopefully go even further,” Surowiec said. “He has high expectations for himself, not just for the team. It’s good to see that he’s so motivated.”

After making 84 saves while filling in for Spitalnik last year, sophomore Johnny Matrona is likely to be the starting goalie.

“He’s definitely still young for a goalie, but we have a lot of promise in him,” Surowiec told TAPinto Nutley. “He has also played at a really high level on his travel team, so he’s ready to step up to the plate.”

In addition, junior Mark Frade – who gave the Raiders 15 points on offense last season – has been playing well as a defensemen during the pre-season.

The coach has also noticed plenty of talent from the Columbia players, despite the fact that they haven’t played on a high school team yet.

“There are a few kids from Columbia who are definitely up to par with the returning players,” he said. “They all understand that they have to earn it. If they’re not working hard, they’re not going to get a lot of time on the ice, regardless of what town they’re from.”

Although a lot of talent is already present, Surowiec would like to see an improvement in the team’s communication skills.

“It’s always a big challenge in high school hockey,” he said. “There’s so many games where it’s silent on the ice and you just wish you would start hearing their voices. It’s definitely something I’m pushing for 100 percent, especially from the kids who haven’t had me as a coach yet.”

In addition, he wants to see an improvement in their overall work ethic, especially in the games in which they will need to make a comeback in the third period.

The Nutley-Columbia ice hockey team will take on the Millburn Millers in their season opener Friday. The opponents tied 3-3 on December 5 last year and the Millers also achieved a 6-1 victory over the Raiders on January 22.

“They’ve always been tough against us,” Surowiec said. “I know they had a few graduations last year, but they’re always a hard-working team, so this will definitely be an interesting start to the season.”

The two teams will meet at the Richard J. Codey Arena in West Orange at 6:45 p.m.