VERONA/CEDAR GROVE, NJ - Rivalries. They turn good moments into classics, bad games into must-watch affairs, friends into enemies and represent the ultimate in bragging rights. Historic rivalries such as the Yankees-Red Sox, Ohio State-Michigan and Duke-North Carolina have a lot of tradition and history behind them.
But what do all of those rivalries have in common? The answer is proximity. The Yankees and Red Sox are the two most popular baseball franchises in the northeast, Ohio State and Michigan are a state border away and Duke and North Carolina are just eight miles apart.
Verona and Cedar Grove can relate. While this rivalry may not be on the same scale as professional athletics teams, these two towns not only share a closeness in geography but both communities teams’ are supported by a passionate fan base that often turns the game into more of an event. When these two towns face each other in any sport, the players know they are facing their neighbors, and things can get a little heated when you’re fighting for bragging rights.
“There’s a mutual respect and these kids know each other,” noted Verona Boys Soccer Head Coach Wayne Looney. “When you put them on the same field, there is a little bit of over-competitiveness because of the rivalry.”
The rivalry between the townships dates back to the 1970s with many highlights coming from the football field. From the late 1980s until 2008, Verona and Cedar Grove battled it out on Thanksgiving at the end of every football season.
“It was a morning thing that people came out to and had marked on their schedule,” added Cedar Grove Athletics Director Robert Gogerty.
In the past, Cedar Grove fans used to take traditions to the extreme to prep for the big Thanksgiving game.
“We used to have a bonfire the night before the game and burn a Verona dummy,” said Cedar Grove alumnus Rich Williams.
Over the past few years, the baseball rivalry has also grown into one of the more intense match ups, starting a yearly tradition of playing at Yogi Berra Stadium on the campus of Montclair State University.
“It brings the students and community out for not just that plain 4 o’clock game at Verona or Cedar Grove High School,” said Gogerty. “We play it under the lights at 7 o’clock in Yogi Berra Stadium and get the little league teams involved.”
Unlike the bigger rivalries where the players come from all over, the Verona and Cedar Grove players know each other, see each other on a day-to-day basis, and in many cases the athletes have grown up with each other.
“We have Cedar Grove soccer players that played in the Verona United Program,” said Looney. “Our kids go over in the summer and play at Panther Park with Cedar Grove players.”
Rivalry games aren’t limited to the athletes. The entire school gets involved — from the marching band to the cheerleaders to the pep club cheering section. That feeling of community just makes the experience more personal.
“The marching band would go out onto the field, do their routine, and knock it out of the park. The cheers increased pride in the town,” noted Williams, who was in the marching band during his time at Cedar Grove.
Because these student-athletes have grown up with this rivalry, they know what it means to come out on top in the annual games and why the stakes are higher when the Hillbillies and Panthers meet.
“It feels a lot different. It feels like we have to come in and win for our town. It’s Verona, we have to beat them,” said Cedar Grove Boys Soccer player Kevin Johnson.
Rivalry games can give birth to heroes that lead one side to triumph. It is something every kid dreams of and Verona Boys Soccer player Sal Vassallo got to live it with a decisive goal that allowed the Hillbillies to prevail over the Panthers on September 17.
“I love it. Ever since fifth grade I have just loved the rivalry,” noted Vassallo.
“I still remember certain plays and things from those games where if it was probably any other game, I wouldn’t have,” added Gogerty on his time as a Cedar Grove student-athlete.
The next chapter of this rivalry is always being written. It is one that bonds the townspeople of Verona and Cedar Grove, even while they fight for bragging rights. The excitement of the rivalry extends beyond the high schools to the youth programs and travel teams. Even when the two towns meet up in the lower levels, there is still excitement and anticipation for those games.
“In a travel game, I noticed that just because it was Verona and Cedar Grove playing, there were more people than just parents,” said Williams. “Everybody showed up.”
Not only does this rivalry bring people together, it boosts town pride, and ramps up school spirit. No matter what the sport is, what the records are, or what the score is, every moment between Verona and Cedar Grove means just a little bit more.
“It’s always a big game for us. No matter how we play, we are always back and forth,” said Cedar Grove Volleyball player Paige Weisel.
The next chapter in the Verona/Cedar Grove rivalry will be written on Saturday as the Hillbillies and the Panthers meet on the football field at Verona High School. Verona is 8-0 and Cedar Grove is 7-1 and the winner of this match-up not only earns bragging rights, but also the SEC-Colonial conference championship.
“It’s the biggest game on our schedule,” said Cedar Grove quarterback Nick Zecchino. “We circle it as soon as soon as we get the schedule. Now that we’re both very good teams this year, it should add to the rivalry and be a good game.”
“A win would mean a lot,” added Verona quarterback Zack Zaccone. “It would give us bragging rights and we would build from there towards a state championship.”
The towns will battle for the conference championship at Verona High School on Saturday at 2 p.m.