At left St. John Vianney girls basketball senior Ashley O’Connor works defense during practice. (Mike Ehrmann photo)
Red Bank Catholic’s boys basketballers, right, battle for control of the court during a Jan. 13 game against Rumson-Fair Haven. (Hal Brown photo)
At left St. John Vianney girls basketball senior Ashley O’Connor works defense during practice. (Mike Ehrmann photo) Red Bank Catholic’s boys basketballers, right, battle for control of the court during a Jan. 13 game against Rumson-Fair Haven. (Hal Brown photo)
" Single-elimination basketball tournaments are the best. There is no room for error. The most important game is the next game. " Tyler Schmelz coach, boys basketball, Red Bank Catholic

The boys and girls Shore Conference basketball tournaments began this week, and according to the seeds, Diocese of Trenton schools are favored to win it all in both events.

Red Bank Catholic is the No. 1 boys’ seed, while St. John Vianney girls have the top girls’ seed. Thus, on paper, they are the “picks” to become champions.

Paper has a tendency to rip, however, so both coaches realize that just being seeded first doesn’t guarantee finishing first.

“Both Red Bank Catholic and Manasquan present challenges and talented rosters that we will have to be prepared for,” said SJV coach Dawn Karpell, whose Holmdel-based team is 23-0 after its second-round win over Neptune. “I like our chances with the talent and leadership our roster has but we will have to be focused and ready to play.”

Borrowing a line from legendary broadcaster Dick Vitale, Karpell added with a laugh “It's tournament time baby!"

The RBC boys raised their record to 20-3 after defeating Howell in the second round (all second-round games were Feb. 17).

It was a foregone conclusion that the SJV Lancers would be the top seed, considering their No. 1 state ranking, and a national ranking of No. 3 (MaxPreps) or No. 5 (ESPN). But for the boys, it was going to be a little tougher choice as who to put up top, making it a pleasant surprise for RBC’s Caseys.

“We are very proud to be the number one seed,” coach Tyler Schmelz said. “We have been seeded five, seven and seven the last three tournaments, so this is a big step forward for the program.

“I think seeding this tournament was an extremely difficult task,” he continued. “There is so much parody with teams knocking each other off every week. I think the people seeding the tournament did a great job. As a fan of Shore Conference basketball, I am very excited to see it all play out.”

SJV and RBC are two of six Diocese schools that have advanced to the SCT quarterfinals, which will be played on Feb. 19 (girls) and 20 (boys). Three girls’ teams and three boys’ teams won their second-round match–ups. 

The Lancer girls have arguably the state’s top backcourt with Madison St. Rose and Zoe Brooks, while Megan Cahalan, Janie Bachmann, Ciera Cevallos, Bre Delaney, Mikaela Hubbard, Julia Karpell, Ashley Sofilkanich and Ashley O’Connor are all key contributors. It is a group that just keeps improving. 

“I feel that our team has grown as the year has progressed,” Karpell said. “Just from the pure fact that we have had a full season and the opportunity to be in the gym six days a week has allowed many of our players to improve individually and, more importantly, for our team chemistry to grow through practice time together.”

And while SJV is basking in the national limelight, it still puts a heavy premium on being the best in its own little corner of the world.

“The Shore Conference tournament is a goal of our team every year,” Karpell said. “Also, given the fact that we did not get to play a true tournament last year, the girls are super excited about playing in the tournament and having fans present to watch as well.”

The Lancers will meet eighth-seeded Trinity Hall, Tinton Falls, in the quarterfinals after taking a 92-45 decision over Neptune. 

Also playing in the girls’ quarters are fourth-seeded Donovan Catholic of Toms River (19-4), which will meet fifth-seeded Rumson-Fairhaven; and second-seeded Red Bank Catholic (20-3), which takes on seventh-seeded Toms River North. The Griffins got 19 from Gabriella Ross and 17 from Olivia Conroy in a 65-39 win over Middletown South. The Caseys took a 46-25 decision over Toms River East as Ally Carman scored 17.

While it will take a huge effort for a girls’ team to knock off St. John Vianney, the boys’ field includes a number of teams with a legitimate chance to win it.

“This tournament is deeper and more open than ever,” SJV boys coach Ryan Finch said prior to the start of the tournament. “There are teams not in the top four who are playing great basketball, like Holmdel and Manasuqan. You also have more Ocean County teams near the top than we have before. Of course, we have teams like Red Bank Catholic and Marlboro who are hitting their stride.”

Finch’s words – unfortunately for his team – proved prophetic, as the fourth-seeded Lancers were upset by 13th-seeded Donovan Catholic, 74-67, in overtime in the second-round. Dan Schwartz scored 18 for the Griffins while Kyree Drake had 16 and Alex Melon tallied 11.

Donovan Catholic (16-6) will meet fifth-seeded Manasquan in the quarterfinals.

RBC has already reached one of its aims as it plays a quarterfinal game against eighth-seeded Manchester Township. The Caseys advanced with a 71-45 victory over Howell. 

“Making it to the quarterfinals is always one of our major goals as a program,” said Schmelz, whose team took a 71-45 victory over Howell in the second round. “We made it to that point a few times so far, it’s a great accomplishment to do it again and maybe take it even further, but you can only get there playing one game at a time.”

The Caseys will do battle behind a balanced offensive attack that gets contributions from C.J. Ruoff, Alex Bauman, Tyler Burnham, Colin Cavanaugh, Zach Weeks, Gioacchino Panzini and Alex Brown.

“We have a lot of players who love playing in the big games and we have a really special and talented group,” Schmelz said. “I think we have had some of our best performances when playing against our local rivals in big games. Hopefully we can keep that up this postseason.

“I feel like we are playing great,” the coach continued. “We have a deep team with a lot of basketball experience. Hopefully we keep up what we have been doing all season and have our best performances when it matters most.”

As for the pressure of being “the team to beat” as the No. 1 seed, Schmelz feels there is none.

“I don't think there is any added pressure,” he said. “Single-elimination basketball tournaments are the best. There is no room for error. The most important game is the next game.”

Sixth-seeded Christian Brothers Academy (16-5) has also moved into the quarterfinals with wins over Point Pleasant Beach and Raritan. The Lincroft-based squad meets third-seeded Rumson-Fairhaven in the quarters.

With 23 points, Peter Noble had nearly half of the Colts output in a 50-45 second-round win over Raritan. Noble added 11 in an 86-33 first-round triumph over Point Pleasant Beach. Pat Lautato tallied 20 against PPB.