For Dawn Karpell, it’s not about the number. It’s about the memories made over 22 years that are nestled within the number.

The good times and the bad. The (many) wins. The (not so many) losses. The emotions. The hard work. The celebrations. Striving for success while forging bonds with young women year after year. The lifetime relationships maintained with former players who Karpell helped breed for success as adults.

That’s what 500 victories means to the St. John Vianney, Holmdel girls basketball coach. On Feb. 12, Karpell reached that coveted mark when SJV topped Holmdel in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals.

“It means a lot of things, but it means I’m getting old, no matter what,” she said with a laugh.

Older means better for the SJV alum, who has her undefeated team (27-0) one win away from a third straight SCT championship. The Lancers are ranked No. 1 in New Jersey and nationally ranked by ESPN (fifth) and Maxpreps (seventh). On Jan. 13, SJV defeated Long Island Lutheran (NY), ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time.

Since taking over in 2007, Karpell has won seven NJSIAA Non-Public A championships, three Tournament of Champions titles and three SCT crowns. Had she not won a thing, however, Karpell would still be a success because of her impact on players as people.

“Dawn represents our motto of knowledge, commitment and involvement,” St. John Vianney Principal Margaret Kane said. “The student-athletes who make up the Lady Lancers are members of Catholic Athletes For Christ. Off the court they can be seen participating in various activities and events that support our Catholic identity and mission.

“Dawn holds high standards for her players and her players hold her in the same regard. They play as a cohesive team who value the individual skills of players and celebrate team accomplishments. (They) are champions on and off the court.”

Part of celebrating 500 wins is that it offers time for reflection. After a playing career in which Karpell helped SJV to four TOC finals appearances and two championships, she played for Sacred University in Fairfield, CT, and won team MVP as a senior.

Her first coaching gig was a year at Keansburg High, where her team won five games. It doesn’t sound like much, but, “You just kind of keep it in perspective,” Karpell said. “Five wins was a super successful season for the players there because they had not had a lot of success.”

Karpell then coached at Holmdel High School for four years – which was convenient since she teaches 7th grade U.S. History in Holmdel’s Thorne Middle School – and she led the Hornets to their first sectional title in two decades.

“I really had to … try to develop their skill sets in public school,” Karpell said. “That’s really helped me here. I still take great pride in trying to improve every player in our program so that they’re better than when they started.”

That philosophy pertains to all athletes, from the biggest superstar to the last girl on the bench. Each player means something special to the coach, and her program has become a pipeline to Division I college ball.

But when Dawn arrived at her alma mater in 2006, she was nervous about proving herself.

“There was just a certain set of standards and traditions that were really well established, that I helped contribute towards as a player,” Karpell recalled. “My first year I was always looking at the past coaches and asking my former teammates, ‘Am I doing this the right way? Am I upholding the standard correctly?”

In maintaining those standards, two rules must be adhered to by every player. One is to read a poem written by an alum, which describes how they should play, what kind of teammates they should be and how they should respect the game.

The second rule is always to love and support your teammate. “I kind of build off of that,” Karpell said. “I tell them, ‘No one is really cheering for you guys, everybody that’s strolling in is really waiting for you to lose.’ So, if we don’t have each other’s backs . . . that’s a must in our gym.”

The players follow those rules because playing for SJV has been a dream for many of them. They understand it’s about more than basketball, and that they must represent the school in a positive light off the court as well. It is a mission they relish, and their enthusiasm comes from their leader.  

“I’m really proud of that,” Karpell said. “The administration and teachers are always very complimentary of our girls and what they bring to the school community … they are well aware that they are the standard. We’re held to a higher level, that’s the reality of it. But ultimately the girls love it.”

Growing up with a Catholic school education, the member of St. Catherine Parish, Middletown, infuses her program with faith-based practices. Most of the Lancers are Catholic Athletes for Christ participants. Prior to a game, they read an aforementioned poem and pray a Hail Mary. After the game they pray The Lord’s Prayer.

“Athletes are so ingrained in having a routine, and that is really part of our routine,” Karpell said. “I don’t single it out … But we do have kids that really embrace that part of it.”

It is the service aspect of Catholicism, along with the structure and discipline of a parochial school community, which give Karpell a comfort level that has her in no rush to give up coaching. After 500 wins, she still loves the journey that must be made to reach that success.

“It was coach (Bob) Hurley or someone who said ‘Even a bad day at the gym is better than a good day anywhere else,’” said Karpell, who got win No. 501 in an SCT semifinal win over St. Rose Feb. 15. “The gym is just my comfort zone. I absolutely love it. And the relationships –  being with the kids and seeing them grow over their course of high school – is really rewarding.”

Not to mention maintaining contact after they are gone.

“My daughter is like, ‘All your friends are your old players, mom,’” Karpell said with a laugh. “I told her, ‘Well, it keeps me young.’”