VERONA — Returning vast talent, one of the state’s best volleyball teams has state champion potential in 2017. Heading into the new season, defending state finalist and Essex County champion Verona High School girls’ volleyball team will be exciting to watch and possess some of the best talent New Jersey has to offer. 

With All-State talent returning, it will work to the Hillbillies’ advantage that they will have much of last year’s key players, especially offensive ones, back on the court this fall. Senior Carly Waterman, a First Team, All-Stater who is one of the top eight players in all of New Jersey, will be at the forefront of the experienced bunch. Waterman recorded a massive 180 service points, 464 kills, 207 digs and 35 device points in a season to remember last year. Aside from her dominance on the court, Waterman’s experience and leadership will lguide Verona through the season. 

“I was captain last year, so I took a leadership role last year, and now since I’m a senior, I can keep moving forward with it and keep being a leader on the court and off the court with my girls,” said Waterman. “Everyone has improved since last year. There’s not one person that’s not gotten better, and in practice, we’re just playing our hardest and everyone’s giving it their all.”

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Joining Waterman on the powerhouse Verona team will be fellow seniors Cameron Fuentez and Madisyn Matthews, and sophomores Hunter Coppola and Brooke Cooney. Fuentez was named to the Second Team, Group 1 after a strong 2016 season, while the duo of Coppola and Cooney combined for 297 kills a year ago. 

Verona’s experience is arguably its best asset in 2017. In total, the Hillbillies carry six seniors and nine girls who played varsity on last year’s team. 

“We have a lot of girls from last year, so we’re not that young. We do have a strong junior base and senior base,” said fifth-year head coach Jeff Stiefbold. “We have mostly juniors, seniors, and our experience should help us.”

Returning the vast majority of the state finalist team from a year ago means Verona has a huge determination to get back to the finals — and this year, bring home a title. The pain of coming so close to being champions has been motivating the Hillbillies to work harder and improve this summer. 

“[Losing in the states] drives us. It makes us want to have that championship, so we’re going to try our best and do our best job to finish that, get that one trophy that we always wanted,” said Fuentez. “It gives us another reason to play for.”

Part of being a successful team means strong communication, and communication is developed through a close-knit bunch of teammates. Verona certainly fits the criteria of “close-knit,” as the Lady Hillbillies have gelled together very well in the preseason. 

“We’re all just so close with each other on and off the court. We always, after practice, go out to lunch together and we make sure everyone’s included — that’s a big part of it,” Waterman said. 

While Verona is only classified as a Group 1 (the smallest) for the upcoming season, that doesn’t mean they compete at a Group 1 level. Major Group 4 schools such as Livingston — whom Verona hosts on Opening Day Sept. 7 — West Orange, Bloomfield. The Hillbillies seem very prepared and excited to get the season underway. 

“We’re always pushing ourselves to get better everyday — not just to get back to the state finals, but to make daily improvement,” said Stiefbold.

“If we make daily improvement with strong effort, then we’ll be happy as far as we go.”