When the Verona High School boys basketball team came together this past December, Coach Eric McElroy had the unenviable task of rebuilding a squad that had lost three starters and a veteran-laden bench. The 2010-2011 team had been able to earn a #2 seed in the North Jersey Group state playoffs. The consensus among the Hillbilly loyals was that the skills of two seniors–Brian Farrell’s pinpoint shooting and Anthony Huber’s tireless work ethic and ability underneath the basket–needed to be the building blocks if the ‘billies were going to be competitive. But the devastating early season loss of Farrell to a back injury only added to the Hillbillies’ concerns.
After winning their first game over Montclair Immaculate High School (57-47), the offense began to struggle, scoring just 26 points in a December 20 victory over rival Cedar Grove. The struggles continued against Whippany Park on December 22 as the Maroon and White accounted for just 28 points through three periods. “Coach Mac” seemed to be searching for an answer, and it came from a previously unheralded and untested bench. Verona exploded for 26 fourth-quarter points: Not enough to keep the Hillbillies from coming home with a loss, but it was obvious they were heading in the right direction. Seniors “Hubie” and Packy Malanga led the charge heading into the always competitive West Essex Holiday Tournament during the Christmas break.
In the opening contest of the tournament, Malanga led the ‘billies to 37-25 win over the Caldwell Chiefs. But it was in the second game that an impressive performance by Huber got the fans and bloggers of Essex County talking about Verona basketball. Huber scored 25 pointsand had nine rebounds in the final over Cedar Grove to earn the MVP and bring the Hillbillies the tournament crown.
Throughout the early part of the season, Coach McElroy received much needed help from his younger players. Returning starter sophomore Alex Kaslander continually showed his ability to make big shots, drive the lane and hit the three-pointers. Sophomores Matt Braschi command at the point, Max Vasile’s shooting and a strong presence by Luke Weiss underneath the basket along with freshman Frank Ferrari helped ease the absence of Farrell.
After a loss to Caldwell on January 3, the boys ran off five wins before losing their second game in an out-of-conference match-, this time against Morris Knolls. They earned the 20th seed in the very difficult Essex County Tournament that showcases some of the most talented players and teams in the tri-state area. Verona scored a first round win over Belleville (55-40) before taking on the tough Livingston Lancers in a game in which many though they would be overmatched. But Farrell was back, and he and Kaslander combined for 35 points to take home a 63-55 win. That pitted the ‘billies up against one of the most talented teams in North Jersey, Columbia High School. In a great game in front of a jam-packed Columbia crowd, Farrell scored 24 points and Hubie 14, but Verona came up just short (64-57) in the effort.
As the Hillbillies continued conference play before the state tournament, they came up against Golda Och Academy, coached by the legendary Sandy Pyonin. Senior captain Matt Tuorto showed a strong presence while netting six points. Coach Mac also got to see a glimpse of next year’s talent as Dean DeNicola, Ethan Garsman and freshman Patrick Cummings combined for 10 points.
The Verona Hillbillies, a team that went into this season with so many questions, were able to pull together through a combination of senior leadership and a youthful supporting cast, and were honored with the #3 seed in the NJSIAA North Jersey, Group 1, North 1 state playoffs. The first game saw them top Pompton Lakes (54-46) before taking on Bogota in a second round match. For the Hillbillies and the packed house there were two goals for the evening: Win and move on in the playoffs; and witness Brian Farrell score his 1,000th career point. With a second-quarter jumper beyond the three point line, Farrell became the first Verona player since Chris Looney to reach that goal. After the game was stopped, Farrell was mobbed by his teammates and family to honor his accomplishment and all the hard work he has put in through his years as a Hillbilly. With a 52-38 win Verona moved on to a game against Cresskill High School. Though Verona matched the Cougars almost point for point during the game, the Hillbillies’ Verona’s season came to an end when they fell to the #2 seed 60-54.
Anthony Huber led Verona in scoring and rebounds this season with an impressive 374 points and 125 rebounds. Farrell finished with 328 points, Kaslander with 280 and Malanga at 147. Sophomore Braschi led the team with 61 assists and 43 steals. Kaslander led the team with 38 three-point shots.
These shots were from the Cresskill game.