Middle school girls basketball has taken Verona by storm this season. The Verona Recreation Department provides a platform for eight youth travel teams (four boys and four girls) in grades 5 through 8 to compete in the Suburban Essex League. Each of the four Verona girls’ teams enjoyed tremendous success this season against other Essex County teams, including West Orange, Bloomfield, Livingston, Montclair, Nutley, Millburn, Cedar Grove, Maplewood/South Orange, Caldwell/West Caldwell and West Essex. All four teams advanced to the playoffs, with three of the teams ultimately winning the championship for their respective grade divisions.
The 8th grade team, coached by Chelsea Giacchi (assisted by Evan Curren), fell to a strong West Orange team in the semifinal round of post-season play. This team, comprised of some of the classiest yet toughest athletes in town, went 10-4 in the League. In every game they played, these girls would dive on loose balls, crashing into opponents and ripping balls out of their hands. But, a second later, these same girls would be the first to help an opponent up or give them a high-five for a nice play. These young ladies set the standard for Verona Suburban Basketball.
The tenacity and grit displayed by the players–Sara Tortoriello, Gabby Egnezzo, Julia Loudon, Maria Caggiano, Anna Hoogterp, Aeryn Curren, Giuliana DeSilva and Lauren Paz–was inspirational for other teams who all hope to play like them in the coming years. Coach Giacchi, who coached this team for two seasons, was impressed by the mental toughness of the team. “At our first practice, the team decided on our values for the season: ‘Hustle, Compete, Work Hard’,” she said. “They lived up to this mantra in every practice and game. I’m especially proud of the defensive mindset the team adopted and it helped us to beat some tough opponents during the season. This team is not only made up of some of the toughest players and hardest workers, but they genuinely love to be around each other and get better together. I was privileged to watch their growth over the past two seasons and look forward to seeing their successes continue at the high school level and beyond.”
The 7th grade team, coached by Jennifer Critchley (assisted by Kieran Quinn and Michelle Frungillo and student-managed by Maeve Nachbaur and Riley Kenrick), defeated Nutley in the championship game at the Verona Community Center before a packed house. The team finished 14-0 in League play and improved tremendously as the season progressed. The players–Julia Dacey, Sidney Quinn, Giada DeLorenzo, Cali Giacomazza, Jane Sorger, Jayden DeSilva, Lily Nachbaur, Kelly Barrow, Alexa Polanco, Isabella Garcia, Dani Imbriano and Izzy Heimerle–demonstrated exceptionally high basketball IQ for girls in 7th grade. The passing, cutting and screening, combined with defensive instincts, led them to their undefeated season. The team was also very fun to watch, as they play at a fast pace all four quarters of the game. The exceptional fitness level and endurance was evident.
Coach Critchley also attributes their tremendous run to their work ethic. “This team showed up at every practice looking to improve,” she said. “They ran sprints hard. They did squats, pushups and sit-ups with smiles on their faces. They learned new defensive strategies and picked up complicated offensive motions and plays. I’m so proud of the effort they put in. But I’m most moved by their absolute fearlessness. Knowing that each new move they tried, or risk they took outside their comfort zone could lead to a mistake or failure, they went for it anyway. That is the kind of moxie that will take these young athletes places not just on the court but in life.”
In one of the most exciting games that the Verona Community Center has hosted in quite a while, the 6th grade team finished its 11-0 season with a championship with an overtime win against Bloomfield. With only seconds left on the clock and as the huge crowd held its collective breath, point guard Taylor McClain drained a three-point shot to tie the game and send it to overtime. Taylor and her teammates–Lily Petruzzi,Jada Bednar, Giada Contorno, Synclaire Szamborski, Lauren Foley, Ellie Ghingo, Abby Romanyshyn, Noella Newman, Julianna Maglifiore, Sydney Hannigan and Leah Romar–celebrated with the trophy after the final buzzer.
Led by Coach Kevin Bednar (assisted by Tara Newman and Lisa Petruzzi), all season long, the team dismantled zone defenses with exceptional passing and seemed to win every hustle play. Their determination to chase after rebounds and dive on the floor for loose balls was incredible. Coach Bednar believes that the girls’ commitment made the difference this season. “I told the girls from the first day of practice that defense and conditioning would allow us to compete with any basketball team on the court,” he said. “They bought in all season long and we continued to improve on other aspects of the game as well. They were a relentless group and they never gave up on each other. This was demonstrated most in the championship game against Bloomfield as the girls refused to give up in the face of many obstacles and things not going their way. It was an amazing season and Coach Tara, Coach Lisa, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
The youngest and perhaps most promising girls’ team also took home the title this season. The 5th grade team, coached by Dave Aromando (assisted by Bob Mroz, Deanna Hromoko, Joe Guarino and Christa Rossi, and student-managed by Molly Mutovic and Kylie Haggerty), defeated Millburn in the championship game with confidence and poise beyond their years. These 10- and 11-year-old phenoms play an unselfish game with great passing, cutting and shot selection. The squad roster includes Emma Aromando, Morgan Rossi, Julia Hromoko, Sara Mroz, Molly Daggs, Kate Scipione, Lexia Guarino, Leah Haggerty, Johnna FioRito, Riley Jo McClellan, Ellie Marateo and Marley McDevitt.
Coach Aromando was impressed with the team’s desire to improve. “The progression and development of the 5th grade girls over the course of their first travel basketball season together was amazing to watch,” he said. “From the first day of practice, we emphasized a commitment to team defense and sharing the basketball on offense. Their focus and dedication to practice propelled them to become both the strongest offensive and defensive team in the 5th grade girls league. All 12 girls on the team contributed heavily to the success of the team and this cohesion can be attributed to their unselfishness as players and teammates. I also think we led the 5th grade girls league in high-fives, which was the one statistic we put a particular emphasis on to start the season. Based on the passion, work ethic and teamwork this team displayed throughout this season, I expect this team to be very successful going forward.”
The success of these teams is truly remarkable particularly given that Verona draws from a much smaller municipal population than the other suburban teams. This success is unquestionably the product of the support and platform provided by the Verona Recreation Department. Thanks to the Rec Department, these young athletes are able to foster a love of the game from an early age, in a beautiful facility. Recreation Director Jim Cunningham also attributes the success to the hard work of the girls, noting that “in my 30 years of supervising Suburban Travel Basketball, I have never had all four girls’ teams make the playoffs. Please note that this is no accident. The Verona players have made every effort to avail themselves of the of off season training provided by their coaches and the Verona Basketball Club. Verona is a basketball town.”
In addition to the incredible sportsmanship and play demonstrated by the girls, the fan support for these teams left many in awe. For each playoff game, the gym was packed and loud and filled with energy. Friends, teachers, parents and grandparents arrived early to get a good seat. And players from the four boys’ Suburban teams came out in full force and cheered their friends to victory. The community spirit is unrivaled and has unquestionably left the players with memories they’ll never forget. Verona is proud of these young athletes and looks forward to what the future holds for them.
Photos copyright Jennifer Critchley, Mike Nazzaretto and Jeff Stiefbold. Used by permission.