TOMS RIVER, NJ — For the first time ever, the Verona boys’ basketball team will participate in the prestigious NJSIAA Tournament of Champions (TOC), a three-round, six-team tournament where all of the state group champions battle for the title of the No. 1 team in the basketball-rich state of New Jersey. 

Verona, the No. 6 seed, will face No. 3-seeded private school powerhouse Don Bosco Prep at the Pine Belt Arena in Toms River Friday at 5:30 p.m. The Hillbillies earned a spot in the tournament by way of their 69-54 victory over Woodbury in the Group 1 Finals Sunday.

Road to the TOC

Sign Up for E-News

Verona went on a 15-2 tear from late December to early January to solidify itself as the No. 1 seed in their section. The Hillbillies defeated Palisades Park, 70-40, in the first round, blew out Wood-Ridge, 79-31, in the quarterfinals, and handled Bogota, 73-46, in the semifinals, where they advanced to play Cresskill in the sectional finals. That game was a wild affair, as Verona emerged champions after taking Cresskill to overtime before edging them, 56-54, behind Jack Farrell’s 19 points. With the win, Verona advanced to play defending-champion University (Newark) in the group championship semifinals, whom they defeated, 71-50, as Travis Jocelyn and Zack Zaccone dropped 25 points a piece. In the state final at Rutgers University, the Hillbillies claimed their first state championship since 1957, defeating Woodbury, 69-54, behind Jocelyn’s 30 points. 

Don Bosco’s route was a little more unique. The Ironmen, known more for their elite football program than their basketball, have only lost one game all season — a season where they have emerged as a New Jersey parochial power. The Bergen County school defeated DePaul and St. Joseph of Montvale to reach the North, Non-Public A finals. They then defeated Bergen Catholic, 60-59, in a wild game at Rutgers University to take the sectional title. The victory gave them a date with national power St. Augustine in the group finals, and the Ironmen went on to win, 69-66, to take home the Non-Public A title at the Pine Belt Arena. 

Key Players

For Verona, a team with a potent offense, several players will have to have the night of their lives shooting the ball in order for the Hillbillies to pull off the upset. G/F Jocelyn is the one to watch, as he is capable of taking over any game in which he plays. The senior is averaging 17.3 points-per-game in the state tournament and has scored a team-high 483 points this season. Jocelyn is also a force on the boards, pulling down 186 rebounds this season. But the Hillbillies certainly do not stop after Jocelyn. Senior guard/forward Zack Zaccone leads the team with 76 assists and 36 blocks this season to go along with a 15.8 ppg. average in the tourney, and has not had a tournament game under 10 points in the scoring column. Farrell, a swingman, leads the team in steals with 43 and is also high in the scoring column, notching 302 total points in his senior season.

Don Bosco has a very high-powered offense to go along with what would seem to be a huge size advantage over Verona. National football star Marcellus Earlington leads the team with 370 points. Not the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul, but Don Bosco’s Chris Paul is also a facilitator on offense, scoring 232 points this year. In addition, Ronald Harper has pumped in 225 points for “Bosco.”

Verona’s Path to Victory

Not many are expecting Verona to win, but the Hillbillies certainly have the talent to shock everybody. If Verona can slow the game down against a very quick, tall and shifty Don Bosco team, they can disrupt the Ironmen rhythm. Lacking the size that Don Bosco has, the Hillbillies will need to rebound a lot better than they did in the state final to gain more opportunities to score, ultimately leading to a victory. 

If Verona wins, it will be because they slowed the came down, controlled the rebounds and kept the score very low. 

What Verona is Saying

“We’re playing with house money right now. These guys [Verona] are a great team, and we’ll do our homework, we’ll get in the gym and we’ll do our homework, start looking at and start breaking [Don Bosco] down,” says Verona head coach Eric McElory. “We’re here for a reason. We’re one of the last six teams remaining. We’ll get to work. We’ll do what we can.”

Says Travis Jocelyn: “[The TOC] is going to be a really good experience for us. We’re a really good team; I feel like we really don’t back down from anything — it doesn’t matter who we play — and we want people to know who Verona is.”