Last Thursday, the Verona 5th grade girls basketball team (11-3) completed their outstanding season, winning the Suburban League Championship, 15-14, on the road in Roseland against No.1 seed West Essex. Despite being on the road, a great turnout from the
Verona and West Essex finished with identical regular season records (9-3) but West Essex was given the No.1 playoff seed by virtue of a tiebreaker based on a slightly better record against the playoff teams, giving West Essex home-court advantage for the championship game.
West Essex defeated West Caldwell, 19-15, to make it to the final and Verona won their home playoff semifinal against Livingston, 18-13, to advance to the championship match. Verona fans, including many of the 5th grade boys basketball team who had won their Suburban League championship a week earlier, packed the Lester B. Noecker gym in Roseland, turning the game into a virtual home game for the girls. The support showed by the 5th grade girls and boys for their respective teams throughout the season, especially in the playoffs, made for a great story as both teams won their leagues, and the camaraderie shown between the two teams really set Verona apart in a positive way from the other towns that they faced.
West Essex jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the championship game, before Verona settled into their stifling 2-3 zone defense, executed by starters Maggie Ashley, Annabelle Zebrowski, Cecilia Courter, Adrianna Fierro and Kate Stanisci. Point guard Maggie Ashely’s three points, made the score 4-3, West Essex, at the end of a tightly contested first quarter.
At the start of the second quarter, Ashley put Verona ahead, 5-4, and then Carly Denora grabbed an offensive rebound and fed Stanisci, who banked in her shot to push Verona to a 7-4 lead, and forced West Essex to call a timeout to stop Verona’s growing momentum.
After halftime, West Essex cut the lead to 7-6, but Verona answered quickly with another Ashley basket thanks to an assist from Courter, pushing the Verona lead to 9-6. Soon thereafter, Ashley fed Denora, who banked in a floating jump shot from near the foul line, expanding the Verona edge to 11-6. The next Verona score was a thing of basketball beauty as the Stanisci jumper was set up by a three-pass combination that circumvented the outer rim of the West Essex defense, from Ashley to Zebrowski to Courter to a wide open Stanisci, vaulting Verona to a commanding 13-6 lead. During this lead expansion, Fierro and Julia Rigney provided great defense and rebounding, giving Verona additional opportunities at the basket.
But West Essex refused to give up, climbing back to reduce Verona’s lead to 13-10 at the end of the third quarter.
The fourth quarter was a contentious nail-biter that featured several turnovers from both sides and momentum swings aplenty. A Courter pass to a cutting Stanisci, who converted the running jumper, broadened Verona’s lead to 15-10 with a few minutes remaining. But West Essex was able to climb back into the game thanks to Verona being in the team penalty, which allowed West Essex many 1-and-1 foul shot opportunities, and Verona’s lead dwindled to a one-point advantage with a little over a minute remaining.
But the Verona girls would not be denied the championship and with their family and friends cheering them on, they dug in on defense, stopping West Essex time after time as the clock began to slowly shrink. With 5.9 seconds left in the game, Ashley stayed in the back court after getting the inbounds pass and dribbled the clock out, setting off a wild on-court celebration, much to the dismay of the West Essex home crowd.
The 5th grade girls championship completed a historic feat in Verona sports history, as it marked the first time that both the boys and girls 5th grade teams won their leagues in the same year, putting an exclamation point to a great winter of basketball for the town.