Longtime Hilltoppers Head Coach Keith Nixon Stepping Down After 28 Years at Summit

13 August 2019


 August 13, 2019
Category Blog

After 350 wins, three state championships, seven county titles and a pair of McInnis Cups, Keith Nixon is hanging up his skates at Summit.

Nixon is not retiring — do not make that mistake — the venerable bench boss is just stepping away from the Hilltoppers after 28 years — at the top of his game after guiding the Union County school to back-to-back NJSIAA state championships each of the last two seasons.

In a coaching career that began at Summit in 1991, the 2012 Star-Ledger State Coach of the Year won many games, captured many titles and made many friends along the way. While it is impossible to recognize everyone, several moments stand out in what was a standout coaching career that will continue with his New Jersey Bandits’ 12U and 18AA teams.

The Miracle at Mennen

Summit 3, Brick 2 — March 11, 2000 — Mennen Arena, Morris Township

With 350-career wins in the bank, it might be hard to single out the top two or three moments spanning three decades of hockey, but for Nixon the choice is an easy one. A game that continues to be talked about to this day, a game considered to be one of the biggest upsets in state hockey.

“The Miracle at Mennen” in 2000 — we beat Brick in the semifinals, 3-2,” Nixon said. “They hadn’t lost to a public school in five years. It was a huge, huge upset. It’s considered one of the biggest upsets in state tournament history.”

Brick, winner of each of the last four public school state titles at the time (1996-’99) was the heavy favorite to skate away with its fifth straight state championship, but Matt Tsiang put Summit on the board first and Jeff Garibaldi scored twice in the second period — both off assists from David Haire — to extend the lead to three as Summit, then-No. 11 in The Star-Ledger Top 20, stunned No. 3 Brick, 3-2, before an estimated 1,000 people in attendance on March 11, 2000 at Mennen Arena in Morris Township.

Brad Sorrentino and Bobby Acropolis scored to cut the lead to one, but goaltender Dana Henderson stood tall with 32 saves to preserve what continues to be one of the biggest upsets in state history.

Dubbed, “The Miracle at Mennen” by longtime Star-Ledger sports writer Paul Bruno, the nickname has stood the test of time.

“Almost 20 years ago,” Bruno recalled. “Before the game, Summit coaches handed the team printouts of a story about the U.S. knocking off the Russians in 1980 to fire them up. Jeff Garibaldi had two goals, including the winning goal, and Dana Henderson was phenomenal. Brick had not lost to a public school since 1995, was seeking a fifth straight title and had outscored three previous playoff opponents 30-3. Brick was stunned.

“It was close to deadline, maybe 9:30-10:00 o’ clock,” Bruno, who wrote for The Star-Ledger from 1987-2012, said. “Newark was pushing deadline back 20 minutes for us. They shook hands and I grabbed Garibaldi as soon as he came off the ice for a couple quotes. I was barely able to get the game into that edition — “The Miracle at Mennen.”

“To come back and do this is a dream come true,” Garibaldi said after the game. “For us, it’s a miracle.”

“It was actually (assistant coach) Tom Simmons that did it,” Nixon said referring to the USA-Soviet story which riled up the Hilltoppers before the game. “We had an up-and-down season with a couple of really bad losses, but the kids got refocused and started playing well, each game gaining confidence. It came down to — this is it — what could we do to shut down (Brick leading scorer and NJ HOF) Bobby Acropolis?

“We iced the puck like 30 times that night,” Nixon said with a laugh. “We just didn’t want to get caught without fresh legs on the ice. The one thing we saw them was what they wanted to do with their breakout every time. So we put the puck in the corner and just forechecked hard to take away what they wanted to do. We scored all three goals off the forecheck.”

“That win over Brick put Summit on the high school hockey map of teams to be reckoned with, and they’ve been one of the top programs ever since,” Bruno said. “It’s amazing that is was almost 20 years ago. It’s still one of the biggest upsets and memorable games in state tournament history. I’m honored to have been there to cover it.”

“The Spark That Lit the Fire” — 2012 State Title

Summit 2, Tenafly 1 (OT) — March 9, 2012 — Prudential Center, Newark

Riley Flynn’s game-winning goal with 5:01 remaining in overtime, assisted by Mike Nyitray, lifts Summit, No. 15 in The Star-Ledger Top 20 to its first state title in program history with a 2-1 victory over No. 17 Tenafly at Prudential Center in Newark.

Garrett McGowan registered 22 saves in between the pipes for the Hilltoppers. Nyitray finished with a goal and an assist. Eric Shalek scored for Tenafly.

“I saw Mike stop at about the hash mark and I figured that he was going to give it to me,” Flynn said after the game. “And as soon as I got it, I just shot and it happened to go in. I saw the right side open and that’s where I aimed. It was a great pass and it felt great to score.”

“I was exhausted,” Nyitray, who scored with 2:05 to play in the first period to give Summit a 1-0 lead, said. “It’s been a long season and this was a long game. We were really tired because we’re not used to the bigger ice surface. But we kept pushing in overtime and we knew that eventually it would come.

“When I came down the ice, I knew that I couldn’t beat them wide, so I just put the brakes on to see what I had coming. I found Riley wide open in the slot, I gave it to him and he put it away.”

Nixon said the 2012 squad was a team destined for greatness.

“It was just destiny for that team to do what they did. I never thought it would go into overtime, but when it did… that overtime goal… We had rolled three lines the entire game, but when the game went to overtime we were going 20-second shifts. I just remember Nyitray picking up the puck in our zone, bringing it down and hitting the breaks… making the perfect pass to Riley… he was on a mission that day. There was just a sense of calm the whole time. The kids just had a lot of confidence in themselves and each other.

“That was just a really well-balanced team — very competitive,” Nixon said. “Early in the season we had been a little bit selfish and had to fight through some significant injuries, but we got everybody back and playing really well going into it. For my money, Mike Nyitray was just the best player. Guys like Chris Zanelli and Riley Flynn who were freshmen, Liam McLaughlin — all 5’5” of him — leading the team in scoring.”

Capturing the program’s first state title affirmed what Nixon knew was there all along, but bringing the NJSIAA title back to Summit for the first time also brought validation, confirmation Summit hockey was on the map.

“It really turned another corner for us, winning that first state title,” Nixon said. “The core of that team was our first middle school team. It was the turning point of a program that when we first started we only had two travel kids on the team. All of our kids were coming from Beacon Hill, which was great, but when we started getting kids like Nyitray and Eric Stabler, Travis Harden and Jeff Wyckoff — kids who were AA, AAA players — legitimate travel players — guys realized in order to play with them, they needed to go out and play more games. Playing 20 Beacon Hill or high school games wasn’t enough anymore. You had to practice, play year-round and it became to the point where it’s evolved a whole roster.

“After 2012 kids started to see the caliber of players they were skating with and up against in high school,” Nixon said. “After that first state title, kids had more of a desire to go out and do it themselves. After that first one, it created an interesting dynamic.”

“On a Mission” — 2018 State Title

With only eight shots on goal, Summit needed to make every one count.

Will Vitton broke the ice 10:26 into the game and Greg Spitznagel scored on a nifty wrap-around 2:11 later before the Hilltoppers added the icing on the cake with an empty-netter with 52.3 seconds remaining in regulation as top-seeded Summit, No. 4 in The Hockey Night in Boston Top 10, skated past third-seeded Chatham, 3-0, in the final of the NJSIAA Public C Tournament at Prudential Center in Newark.

Chatham outshot Summit, 32-8, but came up empty at every turn thanks to the play of sophomore Nikita Pryymak, who turned aside every shot he faced to turn in his third straight shutout in the tournament — and eighth this season — to backstop the Hilltoppers to its second state title in school history and first since 2012.

“It means everything,” Vitton, the team’s senior captain, said. “Coming into this year we knew we were so much more and the boys put in the extra effort, every day in practice coming in working… I just couldn’t ask for a better team.”

“We were just on a mission the entire year,” Nixon said. “We felt we could win it in 2017, came up short against (eventual state champion) Glen Rock, but the kids felt like we were right there. We came in the next year on a mission, lost two games the entire year (24-2-2 record) and that just solidified us. We felt we could roll right through and did. It was just a team with a lot of confidence and talent.”

At the core of the 2018 team was a group of five juniors who had been with Summit since they were freshmen: Greg Moller, Luc Radice, Charlie Collins, Davis Strabley and Remi Vidal.

“I thought it would take four years for that group, but it only took three,” Nixon said.

Nixon could have easily called it a career right then and there — at the top of this game — and no one would have given him a second glance, but the Montclair native who was a goalie for the Mounties from 1972-’75, coming up through the Montclair Hockey Club at what is now known as Clary Anderson Arena, wanted one more year with the five seniors that had been a big part of the success over the past four years.

“It crossed my mind to be honest with you,” Nixon, a teacher in the Ramsey school system, admitted. “That group of juniors — I kind of wanted to see them through.”

“A Roller Coaster Ride” — 2019 State Title

Summit 6, Chatham 2 — March 4, 2019 — Prudential Center, Newark

Nixon had all off-season, the entire summer of 2018, in fact, to change his mind. But as the seasons began to change, the Mahwah resident never lost the desire to lace ’em back up one more time in what would be his swan song for the Hilltoppers.

He sat at 330 career wins, too. In the back of his mind, concluding his coaching career at Summit with 350 wins had a nice ring to it, he thought.

“To come back as defending state champions this year with that group — it meant something,” he said. “But 2019 was a roller coaster ride.”

Even before his final season began, Nixon got a call notifying him his starting goaltender, Nikita Pryymak tore his meniscus and was facing major knee surgery.

“At that point, we really didn’t have another goalie in the program,” Nixon said. “We went from four guys to just Nikita. We went from this wealth of goalie to just one and that one goalie is now out for the season. The prognosis wasn’t good but there was talk maybe he could make it back by the end of the season. My thought was, if any kid can do it he could because he works so hard.”

Weathering the storm, Summit employed a timeshare in between the pipes consisting of Michael Bonomo and Emory Carlson before finding a hidden gem in forward-turned-netminder Grant McMormack who helped keep the Hilltoppers in games. Together, the trio helped Summit win seven of its first 10 games of the season.

“We looked at it and said, ‘We’ve got a strong defense. We’ve got a lot of kids returning on defense. We know offensively we have firepower between Tom Pryymak, Luc Radice, Jake Puskar, Chris Magovern, Charlie Collins and Greg Spitznagel. We know we can score goals, we might have to win some 8-7 games.’”

To compound matters, Summit proceeds to lose two more defensemen in Olli Paasonen and Matt Vigliotta to season-ending injuries.

Fighting through adversity, Summit went 8-2-1 in January and February, including a 3-0 victory over Westfield to take back the Union Cup on Feb. 9, but were quickly brought back to Earth by that same Westfield squad a week later in a 6-5 loss in the McInnis Cup finale on Feb. 16.

Despite the bumps in the road, Nixon never had second thoughts returning for one more season.

“It’s hard, but it’s fun,” Nixon, who played collegiately for Ohio University from 1977-’82, said. “There were times when it wasn’t pretty, times like when we played Bergen Catholic and their first two shots go in. But then our next three go in and we win 8-5. We learned early on we were capable of outscoring teams.”

The loss to Westfield in the McInnis Cup stopped Nixon at 346 wins. In order to reach the 350-win plateau, he and the Hilltoppers would have to win out.

Summit regrouped and proceeded to turn in state tournament victories over Kinnelon, Middletown North and Ramsey leading up to a rematch with Chatham in the 2019 NJSIAA Public C State Final “The Rock.”

And in his final game behind the bench, everything fell into place.

Greg Spitznagel scored twice among five different goal-scorers while Nikita Pryymak capped off a successful return to the crease with 38 saves as the Hilltoppers defended their state title with a 6-2 triumph over Chatham on March 4 at Prudential Center.

“By the time we got there, everything was in the right place. We were where we needed to be,” Nixon said. “If 2018 was a freshly-paved highway with no speed limit, 2019 was like driving to drive down a cobblestone path. It was very satisfying after going through what we did this year. To be able to do that, to overcome all that — it was just awesome — a great sense of accomplishment. This group saved their best for last.

“It was nice,” Nixon added. “It was never really a goal of mine, but I know I’m going out, it would sure be nice to hit a big round number like 350. To be honest with you, I never won any of those games — the players did.”

Looking Back

Over the course of 28 years, Keith Nixon had a lot of help along the way. He wishes to acknowledge his many assistant coaches over the years including, but not limited to: Tom Simmons, Ian Bell, Jamie Stack, Matt Ramstedt, Tom Bringard, Richard James, Joe Meier and Chip Grabowski.

Additionally, he wishes to thank Howie Anderson the athletic director who hired him at Summit and taught him so much about coaching, but more importantly supported him through the tough times in the early years when wins were hard to come by. Nixon wishes to thank friend and mentors Harvey Cohen, John Warchol, Jim Davidson and Bob Toy who have been supportive while providing a wealth of knowledge and resources over the years.

The opportunity to coach against so many worthy adversaries, Nixon wishes to acknowledge Pat Verney, Gary Sphungin, Greg Toskos, Keith Bland, Brandon Doria, Nick Regas, Ryan Carter, Brack Healy and Anthony Yelovich to name a few.

“It’s really cool to be around long enough to coach against these guys when they were in high school and now have the opportunity to coach with or against them as colleagues,” he said.

Over the course of 28 years behind the bench, many players had a profound impact on his life as well. While it is impossible to name them all, Nixon wishes to acknowledge Steve and Keith Schroeder, Ian and Aron Bell, Matt Starker, Riley Flynn, Mike Nyitray, Liam McLaughlin, Bobby Lawrence, Jamie Stack, Nikita and Tom Pryymak, Greg Spitznagel and Carl DeMuth.