When Jeff Stiefbold took over as Verona High School’s volleyball coach in 2013, he committed to making the Lady Hillbillies a competitive force. In just four seasons, the Ladies have, to borrow a term from their sport, simply killed it.
“I didn’t know we would win a conference championship that fast,” says Stiefbold. “I didn’t know we’d get a sectional title so fast.”
On Saturday, volleyball fans got to see just how far Verona has come when Verona played its first-ever championship for the Group 1 state title. The Hillbillies came into the match against Bogota High School with a 32-3 season record, including 25 straight wins. They came into the game as the first Verona team in any sport to win the SuperEssex Conference’s America division, which is based on ability, not school size. They came into the game as the first Verona team to win a county championship since 1981, which was, paradoxically, the soccer team that Stiefbold and his identical twin brother Scott had played on. They came into the game as the first Verona volleyball team to be ranked in the Star Ledger/NJ.com Top 20, which is a proxy for statewide sport rankings. Adding a little fuel to the competitive fire at the title match: Verona’s Carly Waterman was ranked first in the state for kills (455 this year) while Bogota’s Samantha Gioiosa was second at 428.
And Verona delivered. Not a victory, but a solid workout for Bogota, which had claimed the state title seven times before. Bogota squeaked out a narrow 26-24 victory in the first set, and Verona continued the heavy scoring in the second set, which ended at 25-18 Bogota. The state kill record got a workout too, with Gioiosa adding 20 to her total and Waterman adding nine.
Stiefbold couldn’t be prouder of his players. “We have broadened the number of players who can be effective on offense”, he says, pointing to Caitie Kenneally, Francesca Cortese, Brooke Cooney, Nicolette Marino, Madisyn Matthews, Kelly Waterman and the “weapons”, Carly Waterman and Hunter Coppola. Plus Olivia Lucanie and Cameron Fuentez on defense. “We are 100% total team,” he says. Stiefbold also wants to give a shout-out to Kate Ryan and Daniela Trujillo. “They played JV and really helped us in practice,” he says.
Only Kenneally and Lucanie were in their final VHS season this year and there are other good markers for the future. “When we got here,” Stiefbold says of himself and his brother, who serves as the JV coach and varsity’s assistant, “we only had two players who played on club teams. This year, we have 20 players who will be playing club volleyball.”
Verona volleyball’s strong performance also seems to be helping the Stiefbolds get through a personally difficult time after their father, legendary VHS soccer coach George Stiefbold, passed away on September 6. “It’s been an amazing season,” Stiefbold says. “We have a feeling that dad was watching over us.”