’57, ’81 Teams Cheer As Hillbillies Head To Finals


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The 1957 basketball team's win earned it a two-page spread in the VHS yearbook.
The 1957 basketball team’s win earned it a two-page spread in the VHS yearbook.

Doug Gaffney Sr. knows, better than most people, what it feels like to be a member of the Verona High School boys basketball team right now.

Thirty-six years ago, in 1981, he was the coach of the last VHS hoops squad to make it to the state finals. But 60 years ago, in 1957, he was a player on the one and only Hillbilly team to win a state basketball championship. Living in Florida now, Gaffney, who graduated VHS in 1960, is thrilled that VHS will once again be in the finals this Sunday. “How many teams get a chance to get into the finals three times,” he muses.

Rob Farrell, meanwhile, is smarting a bit from Verona’s win over University that propelled them into this year’s finals. He was a member of the 1981 team, which had a 23-5 record going into its final game. “That was the best record at VHS until they broke our record Wednesday,” he says.

Rob Farrell (left) with Sean Lawless (back) in the run-up to the 1981 team's championship game.
Rob Farrell (left) with Sean Lawless (back) in the run-up to the 1981 team’s championship game.

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For a small school, Verona has many sports milestones to its credit, from state championships in football and soccer to an Olympic gold medal. But this weekend, the players of two storied VHS teams are reflecting on what it means to be a part of the biggest state game in basketball.

John Gamba’s win came at a much different time for Verona. Gamba was the captain of the 1957 team. The high school at the time was located at H.B. Whitehorne, and the school was so crowded that half of the student body had to go to school in the morning and the other half in the afternoon. The gym–actually the school auditorium–was in constant use for phys ed classes, so the basketball team was forced to practice outside on the blacktop behind the school. “We had to shovel it off to practice in winter,” Gamba recalls with a laugh. 

It was a small team–in more ways than one. The five-man starting team played all the time (Gaffney was a freshman sub) and only one team member was over six feet tall. All but one of the current 15-member VHS team is over six feet and the tallest, Travis Jocelyn, is 6’6″.

The 1957 team wasn’t a winning team for most of its season. Judge Richard Camp, who was a sophomore on it, recalls that its record stood at 15-7 going into the playoffs. Then that started changing. “All the teams were hotshots and we upset them all,” he says. “Every team we played was taller, bigger and faster.” The epitome of all that was Ocean City, the team that Verona faced in the finals. It had a 25-0 record going into the last game and when the teams got ready in the old Rutgers gym, separated only by a thin wooden wall, Camp could hear the Ocean City players bragging about how they were going to celebrate that night. But when the final buzzer sounded, it was Verona on the upside of a 43-40 score. 

“Most of the student body and townspeople made the trip to Rutgers to watch the game and join the celebration after,” said Jim Citrano, another freshman on the 1957 team (and cousin to this reporter). “I remember that our caravan had an escort going home after the win on the Garden State Parkway.”

1957 Verona High School Basketball Team
The 1957 team included John Gamba (front row #20), Doug Gaffney (middle #12), Jim Citrano (back row center) and Richard Camp (back row second from right)

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Rob Farrell didn’t get that experience. The 1981 team fell to Glassboro 42-36. “It bugs me to this day,” he says. “We were averaging 68 points a game that season. We had several games in the 90s.”

Farrell, uncle to current VHS starter Jack Farrell, has been to many VHS games recently, and has developed a deep appreciation of the 2017 team’s strengths. “There’s an aggressiveness in the way that they play like we had,” he says. “They are a very good team.” 

A large number of the extended Farrell clan will be at the Rutgers Athletic Center on Sunday for the 2 p.m. tip. Rob Farrell is looking forward to watching his nephew’s game, but he can’t help wishing for one other contest. “I would have loved for our team to play against his,” he says. “That would settle a whole lot of arguments.”

Rob Farrell (left) and John McMurtrie at the Glassboro game.
Rob Farrell (left) and John McMurtrie at the Glassboro game.
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(NOTE: Memories aren’t always what they need to be. The 1957 team had an early season record of seven wins and one loss and was 14 and four going into the playoffs. It lost those 4 games by an average of only four points and in 23 games outscored its opponents by an average of 10 points or more while playing on their home court.)

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Virginia Citrano
Virginia Citranohttps://myveronanj.com
Virginia Citrano grew up in Verona. She moved away to write and edit for The Wall Street Journal’s European edition, Institutional Investor, Crain’s New York Business and Forbes.com. Since returning to Verona, she has volunteered for school, civic and religious groups, served nine years on the Verona Environmental Commission and is now part of Sustainable Verona. She co-founded MyVeronaNJ in 2009. You can reach Virginia at [email protected]nj.com.


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