Talk about making a big baseball comeback. After two summers without fielding an American Legion Junior team, Verona returned to the Essex County Junior division in the summer of 2013 with modest expectations and a roster of just 13 players, several of who were just about to begin their freshman year in high school.
But a trio of experienced coaches, with years of their own American Legion baseball experience and success, guided this young Verona squad to an impressive 12-4 regular-season mark and then to three straight playoff wins as Verona claimed the county’s Junior Legion tournament championship. Verona closed the tournament with a 6-3 defeat of top-seeded Livingston in the July 25 title game, and a 5-2 victory over No. 2 seed Montclair a night earlier.
Matt Zebrowski, a rising sophomore at Delbarton, and Colin Kiernan, a freshman-to-be at Verona High, pitched complete-game victories in the final and semifinal games, respectively, and some timely hitting from shortstop Austin Masters and team captain Alex Hardenberg provided the scoring punch.
“It was such a team effort,” said Wayne Masters, who coached the Verona Juniors along with Jim Hardenberg and Ken Kistner. “The ultimate goal was to continue to teach life lessons to the boys using baseball as a tool. We said, ‘Go out there, play hard and compete. The wins will come.’”
And the wins certainly came as the coaches pulled together a roster of capable players who worked hard to improve through June and July. After turning in a very respectable regular season in the first year back in the Junior circuit since the summer of 2010, Verona entered the county postseason tournament as the No. 3 seed. But Verona had managed only one win in five regular-season games against Livingston and Montclair and had to face both those rivals on their home fields.
But with a deep, and effective, pitching corps and an aggressive style of play, Verona was ready to make some noise once the tournament began. Verona topped Bloomfield, 9-0, in the first round and followed with the two big victories that clinched the Junior Legion title.
In the championship game, Verona rallied from an early 1-0 deficit to knock off top-seeded Livingston, 6-3. Masters’ line-drive single to left in the third tied the game, 1-1, and he scored later in the inning on a Zebrowski double to give Verona a 2-1 lead that it never relinquished.
Zebrowski also turned in an outstanding performance on the mound for Verona. Masters (the coach) said he went into the game hoping to get a few solid innings from Zebrowski (who has spent a lot of time throwing footballs this summer in preparation for his role as a quarterback at Delbarton) and then going to his deep group of relievers. “We were going to see how his arm felt,” Masters said of his starting pitcher. “It was a championship game, but it’s also Junior Legion and we didn’t want him to risk injury.”
However, Zebrowski was “a strike machine” and his first-pitch strike percentage was “off the charts.” The sophomore right-hander ended up with a complete-game victory and threw fewer than 85 pitches, the coach noted.
On the way to the championship game, Verona got a big win from freshman-to-be Kiernan, who struck out 12 in the 5-2 victory over Montclair on Wednesday, July 24. Going into the playoffs, Montclair had defeated Verona in two close regular-season games, but had not come up against Kiernan as the starting pitcher. His lively fastball – and a sound defensive effort behind him – kept Montclair from putting together a crooked-number inning.
Kiernan (younger brother of former Verona shortstop Timmy Kiernan) worked out of trouble in a couple inning against Montclair, including the seventh when he recorded the final out with a strikeout with two men on base. “He pitched a tremendous game,” Masters said. “He was the ace of the staff, by far, during the season and was a dominant pitcher.” Kiernan recorded a season-high 14 strikeouts in Verona’s regular-season win over Livingston, and he made a key diving catch in center field against Livingston in the championship game.
The team’s pitchers benefited from the presence of sophomore Alex Hardenberg behind the plate. Hardenberg, who saw some varsity playing time as a freshman for Verona High School back in the spring, was “a rock behind the plate,” Masters noted. And the team also played solidly up the middle, with the middle infield combination of Masters and Robson, looking strong throughout the summer. Robson “made every play,” the coach said. And shortstop Austin Masters became adept at chasing down those short fly balls that typically drop in between shortstop and leftfield – which is right up there with the double-play as a pitcher’s best friend.
Verona also got a strong pitching effort throughout the season from rising junior Thanasi Grillias, who threw five scoreless innings in the first-round victory over Bloomfield on July 21, just days after a strong pitching performance in the final weekend of the season when Verona took a double-header off Nutley and a victory over West Orange. “He did phenomenal for us, and he pitched some key games,” Masters said of the right-hander.
There also were key contributions from the rising freshmen on the team, including twins Kevin and Wade Kistner. Kevin was the leadoff hitter most of the season and played outfield and first base. “He did a great job,” Masters said, noting that Kistner also pitched in some important spots for the team. Wade played catcher and outfield before breaking a finger during the regular season. Jake Anguillare, another rising freshmen, played third base and outfield, and also saw time as the DH.
Verona High sophomore Will Evans played left field and came up with several key hits, including two important RBIs in the playoffs. “I started calling him Roy White because he was just getting key hits,” Masters said, joking that the sophomore has no memories of the former Yankees outfielder and fan favorite. Also in the outfield were Jordan Francullo, a St. Peter’s Prep sophomore who will play football in the fall, and Billy Hughes, a sophomore at MKA who runs track in the spring. Francullo was the team’s top center fielder and was one of the players Masters recruited to ensure that Verona could round up enough players for every game.
“We had nine players a lot of the time,” the coach explained. “Nobody could get hurt.”
Sophomore Jerry Robson, who played second base, turned in an outstanding defensive season and probably had “the best swing on the team,” Masters said.
Masters and fellow coaches Jim Hardenberg (father of catcher Alex Hardenberg) and Ken Kistner (grandfather of twins Wade and Kevin Kistner) are certainly well versed in American Legion baseball. Hardenberg played third base on the Caldwell Post 185 team that, in 1978 under Jack Venezia, won the New Jersey state championship and advanced to the national tournament in Yokima, Wash. Kistner also has been involved with Verona Post 183 baseball for many years, having coached Verona’s Senior Legion team for several summers. Masters played for Caldwell Post 185’s 1986 county championship team and went on to play professional baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.
“It was such a successful season,” Masters added. “Everybody improved, and there are so many things we got better at…. That stuff is as important as winning the Essex County championship.”