VERONA, NJ — The Verona High School soccer and basketball teams both brought home state titles this school year, and given the talent on this year’s baseball team, there’s no reason to think the Hillbillies can’t do it on the diamond as well. 

With pitching that can be seen as upper-echelon in the Super Essex Conference (SEC) American Division — arguably the best baseball conference in New Jersey — and a handful key returning players from last year’s 18-7 state quarterfinalist team, Verona will be one to fear, not only in the SEC, but in all of Group 1. 

Of the returning players, one player in particular has captured not only the attention of high school and college coaches, but Major League Baseball teams and scouts. Senior right-handed pitcher Collin Kiernan, a Rutgers commit, will essentially give the Hillbillies an instant advantage the days he’s on the mound. Kiernan led the entire state of New Jersey in strikeouts last year with 135, and is certainly in the running to do it again. 

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Kiernan is part of a very strong pitching staff for Verona. The pitching is what ninth-year head coach Joe Phelan considers to be the team’s strong suit. Senior pitcher Kevin Kistner returns to the starting rotation, bringing with him a nearly-perfect 0.96 ERA from 2016. And the line of dominant pitching doesn’t stop there: Ian Metzger, who additionally plays first base, also returns to the starting rotation aiming to lower his already-elite 1.07 ERA from 2016.  

Since the Hillbillies will have a premiere arm starting on the mound nearly every game, it takes a lot of pressure off of the hitters. But that doesn’t mean Verona won’t deliver on offense. While the Hillbillies might not deploy the type of juggernaut lineups that its SEC American counterparts do, it is sure to produce a fair share of runs. 

Key returning hitters include aforementioned Metzger, senior catcher Wade Kistner and junior Nick Zamloot, in addition to important newcomers Mike Daggett and Tino Quagliata, both juniors. Metzger returns to the lineup after hitting .565 with two home runs in 46 at-bats last year. 

While the Hillbillies were able to compile a healthy 18-7 record last season, it will be much more challenging for the Essex County squad to match last year’s record due to increased competition -- Verona will be moving up to the SEC American division in 2017, after spending last year in the SEC Liberty. The American division features perennial powerhouses such as Millburn, Seton Hall Prep, Nutley and Montclair — all of whom Verona will play at least twice.

While Verona appears to have a solid roster that is primed to make noise in the SEC, it will feel the pain of losing Alex Hardenberg and Austin Mathers, both key components from last year’s successful squad. 

Key games for the Hillbillies include games against Millburn on April 27 and May 9, clashes with Nutley on April 17 and May 17, and a visit to Seton Hall Prep on April 19. 

It promises to be a very interesting season for Verona, that will begin, if the snow ever melts, on Sat., April 1 against SEC rival Columbia at Verona High School.