PISCATAWAY – After losing Sunday afternoon in the Group 1 State Championship, the Woodbury High School boys’ basketball team had every right to look at the larger picture than the final score.
The scoreboard at Rutgers University said the Thundering Herd were on the short end of a 69-54 count to Verona, but the numbers in bright lights above the court couldn’t begin to tell the story of this season.
”What these guys were able to do … they were able to learn to trust each other and play for something more than themselves,” Woodbury coach Justin Barringer said.
Barringer, who finished his third season in charge on the sideline, understands as well as anyone in Woodbury what this season meant to the school and the town since he was a senior point guard in 2000 for the Thundering Herd.
Woodbury (26-6) claimed its first South Jersey title since 2010 with a seismic win over Colonial Conference and neighboring rival Paulsboro.
Then, the Herd defeated Central Jersey champion Burlington City in the state semifinal on Wednesday.
These monumental wins for Woodbury came after the Herd bowed out of the postseason in Barringer’s first two seasons in the second round.
“Everyone told me to enjoy this,” Barringer added, “and I told the players to enjoy this and the process, too.”
Still, the Herd wanted to make history.
Woodbury was looking for its first state title. It was just the third visit to the championship game for the Thundering Herd, losing in 2010 to University in the Group 1 final and in 1934 to Ridgefield Park in the Group 3 title game.
Instead, Verona won its first state title since 1957 when the Hillbillies beat Ocean City in the Group 2 final.
“As a player, this is where you want to be at the end of the year,” said point guard Aaron Estrada after scoring 13 points. “It was a great atmosphere.”
Senior Ja’Zere Noel led Woodbury with 27 points in his final game.
“It felt amazing, we had fun playing out there, it’s just disappointing that we didn’t come out on top,” Noel said. “I left everything I had out there.
“It has been a great experience playing for Woodbury.”
The future is bright for Woodbury with Estrada to build around. The 6-foot-1 sophomore not only runs the offense, averaging 3.4 assists a game, but he averaged 17.4 points and 4.1 rebounds.
“I enjoyed the whole season, we had a successful year,” said Estrada, who has already scored over 800 points in his career and scored a season-high 30 points against both Penns Grove and Sterling this year. “It was just a tough loss at the end.”
Dean Triplett scored 10, the only other double-figure scorer for the Herd.
“This experience was a learning experience,” Estrada said. “I learned when you play on a big stage you can’t come out flat. You have to come out firing.”
Woodbury trailed 13-8 after the first eight minutes before falling behind by nine points at the half.
“As a team, we came out flat,” echoed Noel. “We didn’t get our usual start.”
The Thundering Herd closed the 30-21 halftime deficit with their best quarter, outscoring Verona 17-14 to trail by just six points going into the fourth.
However, the Hillbillies pulled away with a 25-16 spread over the final eight minutes.
“It was rebounding and getting back in transition,” Barringer explained.”
The Hillbillies were led by Travis Jocelyn’s 30 points.
Woodbury was led by Noel and its fans.
“I loved the support from the city, it was outstanding and I enjoyed every minute of it,” Noel said. “Even though we lost, they were behind us 100 percent.”