Hillbilly Hoopsters Reach Tournament of Champions
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The VHS boys basketball team completed its most successful season in history, repeating as state sectional champion and then going on to win the Group One championship, earning a trip to the elite Tournament of Champions, an honor earned by only six teams in the state – the four public school group champions, and the two parochial school division champions.
After a strong regular season and a record of 19-5, the Hillbillies earned the number one seed in the North 1 Group 1 State Playoffs. After blowing Palisades Park out by 30 and Woodridge by 40, they advanced to the semifinals to match up with Bogota. A high intensity game that went back and forth most of the first half resulted in Verona pulling away to beat Bogota by an impressive 73-46. The stifling Hillbilly defense could be given a lot of credit for their advancement to the finals for that they did an incredible job getting stops, and turning the stops into quick baskets on the other end.
The state finals matchup was set at home against Cresskill. Tickets for the game went on sale at 5 p.m., sold out quickly, and the stands were packed a full hour and 15 minutes before tip off. The high intensity crowd packed with fans from both teams made the atmosphere more than special. The first quarter ended in a 9-8 Verona score, but it felt as if 30 points had already been scored with the energy of the crowd. Throughout the second quarter Cresskill had the edge and Verona got in foul trouble; Zack Zaccone had three fouls and Jack Farrell had two, forcing them to sit most of the quarter. The sharpshooting of Cresskill gave them the edge in the first half as they went into halftime with a 31-20 lead.
At the start of the second half the Hillbillies came out firing on all cylinders, changing their game plan and attacking the rim any chance they got. The defense stepped up and held the Cougars to only two points the entire quarter. 37-33 was the score as both teams geared up for the start of the fourth quarter. As the game went back and forth in the final quarter of play free throws became crucial. Both teams were on the line consistently throughout the quarter. As the final minute of play wound down Coach McElroy decided to hold for the last shot witht the game tied. After a couple of timeouts Verona got the play they wanted, Farrell with the ball driving towards the hoop. As his lane was cut off he stepped back behind the three-point line, losing his defender and putting up three that was long. Overtime was to follow.
The end of the overtime came down to a furious flurry of activity. After free throws put Verona up by two, Cresskill had the ball with 45 seconds left. They worked the ball around the three point line and pulled up for a shot. When the player was met by a defender, he appeared to travel. The refs made no call, and he dished to the center for an easy two. As the home crowd bellowed in disbelief at anger at what they thought was a missed call, Jack Farrell took the inbounds pass, rushed down the court, got in the paint, and floated up a runner that put Verona back up by two. The Cresskill point guard rushed backed down the court and threw up a shot from the elbow. It was no good, and the celebration was on as the Hillbillies took their second consecutive sectional titles.
On Sunday March 12, the Hillbillies took on Woodbury for the Group One championship at the Rutgers Athletic Center. A very talented Woodbury team played a competitive game but the red-hot Hillbillies proved to be too much for them to handle. Verona went into halftime with an 11 point lead and did not fall behind for the remainder of the game. Travis Jocelyn was the game’s leading scorer with 30 points and grabbed 9 rebounds as Verona captured its first group championship since they beat Ocean City in 1957.
Although they put up a valiant effort against Don Bosco in their TOC game, even taking a one-point lead into the fourth quarter, The Hillbilles succumbed in the end and their historic season was over.
“Winning back to back sectional titles as well as a Group One title is a great way to go out. The support our team has received from not only our parents and family but everyone in Verona was really special, and it’s something that has helped this community to come together,” said senior Jack Farrell.