8th Grade Boys Win First Suburban Basketball Championship

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If you were at the Verona Community Center on Friday, March 10, between 6:30 and 9:30 p.m., you were treated to the best example of what makes Verona so special. Before the gym doors were open, fans were lined up outside, in the rain, waiting for the opportunity to get good seats, put up posters and get ready to pump up their heroes for the night–the undefeated Verona eighth grade boys Suburban basketball team. The fans were not disappointed, as the team took the championship trophy home after a thrilling game against a talented and well-coached Millburn squad.

While Millburn brought fan support from the far reaches of southern Essex County, the throngs of Verona faithful, young and old, were simply, in a word, special. The gym was packed. There was condensation dripping from the windows at the end of the game. Every fan in the gym had sweat through their clothes by the end of the game. And every fan would do it all over again if given the chance, as there can be no doubt, if you could get a spot in the gym, it was better than a game at Madison Square Garden.

But alas, that game cannot be played again. Indeed, the boys on the Verona team, many of whom have been playing together since second grade, will be going in separate directions for high school. They’re a special group. Many teachers and parents in town will tell you, if you don’t know them, that they are some of the nicest boys you could ever meet. They stay out of trouble. They get good grades. They support all other Verona teams. They are involved in many activities beyond basketball. They contribute to the wonderful fabric of Verona. These boys–all 10 of them–are incredible examples of what Verona is and means to all of us. They play with class and sportsmanship and for love of the town, each other and the game.

Perhaps that is why the gym felt like it did Friday night. Everyone there knew they were going to be treated to a great game. But they also knew they had to be there to applaud every aspect of these wonderful young men. Verona is so proud of them.

The game started out with a bang. Verona went up 7-0, forcing Millburn to call a quick timeout to get themselves settled. Millburn then proceeded to go on a 8-0 run to end the first up 8-7.

The second was a different story with Drew Aromando and Kieran Quinn exploding to combine for 24 points with 5 threes bringing Verona to the half up 30-21. The third quarter ended with Verona maintaining the 11-point lead at 48-37. Daniel Mahon swatted several shots with authority to change the offensive looks Millburn was getting. A great team effort on the boards in this half helped maintain that lead.

All to play for in the fourth and Millburn came hunting. Some big 3s by Millburn ate into the Verona lead and got it down to a three-point game. With 3:17 left in the fourth, Aromando grabbed a board and hit a flying Quinn who pushed hard down the floor to find Peter Hanlon in the corner for a 3 to extend the lead to six and get the loudest roar of year in a jam-packed gym. This proved to be the back breaker as Millburn didn’t respond and Verona ended up being victorious with a final score of 61-52.

Each member of the Verona team saw the floor and contributed positively to a win that was a long time coming. This is the first boys title for Verona since 2012 and first eighth grade title in the programs history.

The team, coached by Kieran Quinn, Dave Aromando and Jeff Barrow, have been with these boys for six years. They have taught them fundamentals, strategy, competitiveness and sportsmanship. And through every tough practice, they always reminded the boys that basketball is the game we all love, but it’s the game that teaches the most life lessons. These coaches have been the leaders every parent dreams of having coach their kids. Of course, the coaches understand that there have moments over the years when it was hard for parents of the boys to see their kids struggle or even fail, but these coaches guided them, loved them and and got them through to the other side. Each one of these boys will forever have a frame of reference when faced with adversity in life. They each have the tools to deal with anything that comes their way.

In fact, just one year ago, these boys suffered a defeat in the Championship game against West Orange. The boys got to work right after that loss, with one goal in mind–their banner that would be hung in the Verona Community Center after winning the whole thing. They played in summer leagues. They played on club teams. They sacrificed six nights a week in the gym, including Friday nights! All for a common purpose: To win for each other, and for Verona.

The team was led in large part by Quinn and Aromando. After a hefty summer growth sport, Kieran was simply a handful for teams this season. His relentless effort on the boards and in the post, combined with his outside game and ability to handle the ball, is impressive to say the least. Drew found his second gear this season. Teams could not keep up with him. His athleticism, tenacity, ability to shoot and finish around the rim made him the best guard in the Suburban League. Drew did all this while also being the floor general, defending opponents’ best players. He’s a special kid.

Ryan Barrow is a coach’s dream. He is so smart. He knows the plays, the plan and even what needs to be done with the play and plan falls apart. A selfless player, Ryan always makes the extra pass for the better shot.

Jude Nippes, also known by his coaches and teammates as “Recess Jude”, is the team’s showman. His flair and creativity is fantastic. Everyone watching the team play knows that all of Jude’s teammates love to play with him.

Daniel Mahon is easily the team’s most improved player. Over the course of his Suburban Career, Dan went from not playing a minute in games, to starting and … dunking! Yes! Dan Mahon is dunking the basketball in eighth grade.

Peter Hanlon is one tough kid. He fears nothing. He will take on anyone on the basketball court. His corner 4, late in the fourth quarter of the Championship game will never be forgotten by anyone at that game. The gym erupted, ready to put Peter on their shoulders. Meanwhile, Peter probably clearly understood he had to take the whole gym on his shoulders, and delivered.

Jimmy Nachbaur became a team sniper. Always the first to practice, Jimmy is a deadeye shooter. Whenever he shot the ball in games, the Verona faithful waited with bated breath to go nuts! Everyone loves to celebrate a Jimmy 3!

Jack Hromoko was a steady performer in games. While Jack played limited time in some games, he was the stoic, confident presence his teammates needed. He competed every day in practice and has improved tremendously. He will be a true asset to the VHS team next year.

Luke Nawrocki (“Luuuuuuuuuke”) is another Verona favorite. When Luke was in games, you knew he was going to get the fan base riled up. Always the first to dive on a loose ball, scrap for a rebound and sprint back on defense, Luke was the grit that helped the Verona squad grind.

By the end of the season, Ben Herman emerged with the swagger all of Verona was waiting for. He hit BIG shots in the Verona v. Bloomfield semifinal. While never cocky, Ben understood that he had earned his right to be confident. There was no doubt that layup down the stretch in the Championship game was going in.

The team is comprised of more than just the coaches and boys. The support of Jim Cunningham and the Verona Recreation Department has been critical to the team’s success. One Rec Department employee, site supervisor John Wands, was a key figure in the team’s ability to thrive. Wands always had the gym immaculate for practices and never minded when the team ran a little over on time. In fact, he even jumped into some of the practices, making free throws that kept the team from running sprints. The boys are all receiving support from the best of role models. Travis Jocelyn, former VHS standout and former Suburban league player who now plays professionally in Germany, sent video clips very regularly supporting this team. Jocelyn watches all the games and has been a tremendous asset to these boys to keep them encouraged in line with our core values: unity, ambition and respect.

The team will now relish the memory of winning before the Verona faithful forever. The boys will continue on with their athletic endeavors. But they know that winning on Friday night, in front of a packed, hometown crowd, with the boys they’ve known since they were five, is an experience so special that it becomes part of who they are–they are Verona.

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