Donovan Catholic girls tennis team members pause for a team shot. From left: Bella Ayres, Caitlin Piazza, Kat Shuler, Gianna Rao, Jess Placa, Sheryll Tamakloe, Emma Conroy, Emma Courtney. Courtesy photo
Donovan Catholic girls tennis team members pause for a team shot. From left: Bella Ayres, Caitlin Piazza, Kat Shuler, Gianna Rao, Jess Placa, Sheryll Tamakloe, Emma Conroy, Emma Courtney. Courtesy photo

As students begin filtering back to their respective high schools for another year of learning, they do so knowing there will be much more to life than just books, exams and homework. There are also the socializing aspects that will provide memories for a lifetime, with many centering around athletics.

Whether a student is actually playing a sport or just watching, there is much to anticipate. Area Catholic schools feature teams with potential for a successful season, and here is a look at several promising squads.

Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River

The Griffins girls tennis team should make the Toms River campus proud this year as it returns five of seven starters from a team that went 17-2 last year. Donovan Catholic has won four straight Shore Conference B South Division titles and are riding a 56-match winning streak in division matches.

Tom Connerton, who is coaching his 45th team between girls and boys, feels it is one of the nicest groups of players he ever coached, and he feels “they are truly family. I’m equally proud of them on and off the court.”

Leading the way is senior captain Emma Conroy, who is 57-6 in her career and has won two Ocean County Tournament titles.

“Emma is loyal, moral, dedicated and the absolute leader of this program,” Connerton said. “She is always working to improve and always prepared.”

Junior Bella Ayres will move from first doubles to singles this season and junior Gianna Rao will remain at first doubles after she and Ayres were Ocean County finalists last year. Also returning are juniors Caitlin Piazza and Jess Placa and sophomores Sheryll Tamakloe and Kat Shuler. Talented freshman Stephanie Stulic could also crack the lineup.

“I think we will be competitive once again,” Connerton said. “I am blessed to represent this group of wonderful girls on their journey.”

Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville

When Lauren Diaz arrived as girls soccer coach last year, she had a standout goalie in Olivia Bodmer (now at Rutgers) that she built a strong defense around. The result was an 11-5-2 record and trip to the Mercer County Tournament semifinals for the Lawrenceville-based program.

A dozen girls graduated from that team, but Diaz remains optimistic since numerous players return who were responsible for allowing just 17 goals and recording nine shutouts.

“We have a great core group that came back,” the coach said. “We lost a lot in terms of the leadership ... But we feel our core group of returning varsity players … have a great connection among each other.”

Although the goalie situation was unsettled in preseason, a solid, experienced group of backs return in seniors Meg Reuter and Ryan Carr and juniors Hannah Neville and Brynn Fitzpatrick. Returning in the midfield and up front are senior Juliana Lynch, juniors Cam Beetel and Emily Javick and sophomore Isabella Lynch.

“We have a really great group returning,” said Diaz, whose team will share a brand-new soccer-only field with the boys team. “We’re gonna try to transition. We played a very defensive formation last year because we felt that’s what fit our players best. This year we’re gonna try and transition to a more offensive style.”

Red Bank Catholic High School, Red Bank

What does a football team do for an encore after winning the NJSIAA NonPublic Group B championship? Try to win another one, of course.

“Last year was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” coach Mike Lange said. “But we have to turn the page. This is an opportunity for this group, for their story.”

It was good enough to take a season-opening 33-7 over St. John Vianney in the Battle at the Beach in Ocean City Aug. 27.

One of RBC’s most valuable players is senior captain Sabino Portella, a running back/safety. Portella rushed for 845 yards and nine touchdowns last season and had 75 tackles and two interceptions on defense.

“Sabino is kind of the glue here,” Lange said. “This is it for him – he’s going to wrestle in (North Carolina State) college. I think the kids know how much this season means to him.”

Portella’s brother Lorenzo and fellow junior Tyler Burnham are returning starters on the offensive line. Lorenzo is also back at defensive tackle, while junior Davin Brewton and senior Michael Palmieri return at linebacker. Torin Harmon is a returning starter at safety. Luke Wassaf, Isaiah Nash, Jamie Gutridge, Aidan Donahue and Christian Ungemath all had solid games defensively in the opener.

“We have an opportunity to be very good,” Lange said. “It’s gonna be a collective effort but I think we’re gonna lean on a lot of the kids who played the last couple years.”

St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel

The bad news for the St. John Vianney field hockey team is that two of its top five scorers are not returning this year. The great news is that its two top goal-scorers and top assist producer return from a 12-7 squad.

“I am very excited for the upcoming season,” coach Amanda Westerweller said. “We are expecting to put on some pretty great field hockey this year.”

The Lancers bring back a formidable scoring trio in seniors Katarina Villa (32 goals, 10 assists last season), Cat Schienvar (15 goals, 9 assists) and Fiona Drew (5 goals, 12 assists).  

“We are very excited to build around the three of them,” Westerweller said. “Having that many scoring threats is certainly a challenge to defend, which has led to our success in the past and I hope leads to more.”

SJV also has three key performers back on defense, including senior defenders Olivia Militello and Katelyn Boyer, and senior goalie Taylor Schlein (101 saves).

“We have a lot of experience to build around, as well as some exciting developments from our freshmen and sophomore class,” Westerweller said.

“I would say the biggest key to having a good season this year – with success in the Shore Conference Tournament and states – would be consistency.”

St. Rose High School, Belmar

The Purple Roses girls soccer players went 9-10-2 last year without a senior on the roster. It’s a nice situation for first-year coach Mike Hurley, who takes over for Emily Tiernan.

The 59-year-old Hurley, a former Lafayette University assistant, has coached high-level players in camps, on club and academy teams and in college. Hurley owns and operates Jersey Shore Soccer Training and has decided to coach in high school “to give something back,” to the community.

The new coach got to observe his team during summer sessions and liked what he saw.  

“They’re technical acumen is very good,” he said. “I liked the fact that a significant majority have played high level club play … They like to play the right way … and they are formidable defensively.”

A key returnee is Isabelle Levy, “who was very good last year and is a solid goalkeeper,” according to the coach. Levy had 226 saves and five shutouts last year.

Sophomore Ava Gialanella is back at attacking center midfielder after collecting nine goals and 14 assists last year. Also returning up front is senior Adriana Dalia, who had 19 goals last year and 32 for her career.

Defensively, seniors Sofia Gialanella (Ava’s sister) will be a center back and Julia Whesper will be at defensive center-midfield. “Sofia plays for the PDA Shore team and will be a captain, and Julia is physically and mentally tough. She is skilled,” Hurley said.

Junior Reese Losecar will be up front on the wing with blazing speed. Samantha Brett, a transfer from Wall, provides an all-around player who gives the Roses some versatility.

In looking at his team’s potential, the coach noted that “competing for a Parochial championship or conference championship is one of our goals. … The talent is there for a winning season.”  

Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft

The CBA cross country team is coming off winning its 36th Shore Conference Championship and 57th Monmouth County Championship. The Colts extended their incredible streak of undefeated dual meet seasons to 48 straight; having gone 383-0 since 1974. They finished second in both the NJSIAA Non-Public A state meet and the Meet of Champions.

The team also marked the first season since 2015 it did not win Non-Public A and Meet of Champions. It holds the record for most state titles (30) and most MOC crowns (24).

“Last year was a challenge,” coach Sean McCafferty said. “We struggled for most of the year … As the season progressed, we improved immensely. … By the end of the year, we ran a 16:16 (team average time) at Holmdel, one of the better times in New Jersey history.”

Indeed, that time could win the MOC most years and it was CBA’s 11th best-ever run at the difficult course.

CBA graduated top runner Jack Moran, who “ran so well for us last fall. He was a great leader and showed our other athletes how to run hard and care about each other.” The coach added that “Nick Sullivan has filled in the leadership role nicely.”

Sullivan is a returning senior along with Matt Mastroly and Lucas Ward; juniors Jack Falkowski and Alex Kemp and sophomore Joe Barrett. Rather than having a clear-cut No. 1 runner, McCafferty sees a solid pack of runners.

“I believe we will have a tight spread and interchangeable top five or so,” he said. “I wouldn't be surprised if we have a 10 to 20 second spread from one to seven.”

Trenton Catholic Preparatory Academy, Hamilton

The Hamilton Township school has added girls tennis to its athletic program this year and coach John Hapes was encouraged by a turnout of 11 players. He feels that seniors Briana Chaperon, Hecybel Morales and Ashley Garrido have all looked promising.

“I often ask the players ‘What is the biggest room in the world?’” Hapes said. “The answer is ‘The room for improvement.’ Since most of our players have very little experience our main goal is to become better tennis players. Certainly, having fun is an objective too.  Learning the fundamentals are paramount. There are some players that have demonstrated that they have the potential to be competitive tennis players.”