St. John Vianney's Madison St. Rose was named Most Valuable Player of the Shore Conference Tournament held Feb. 29 at Monmouth University, West Long Branch. Rich Hundley photo
St. John Vianney's Madison St. Rose was named Most Valuable Player of the Shore Conference Tournament held Feb. 29 at Monmouth University, West Long Branch. Rich Hundley photo
The battle cry for this year’s St. John Vianney girls’ basketball team is not only catchy, but up to this point, it has been prophetic.

“They have tagged themselves as ‘No seniors, no problem,’” coach Dawn Karpell said. “They came up with it on their own two weeks ago. I said ‘OK.’ I don’t know if that makes it lighthearted or not, but that’s kind of the approach the kids are taking. So we’ll just let them have it.”

Photo Gallery: SJV girls take Shore Conference Tournament title

So far, it has been no problem for a roster of all underclassmen, as witnessed by the Lancers latest Shore Conference Tournament success.

Trailing by one, top-seeded SJV used a 10-2 run in the final two minutes of the Feb. 29 SCT title game to take a 57-50 victory over 2nd-seeded Manchester at Monmouth University in West Long Branch.

It was the 14th conference tournament championship for Vianney and first since 2016. The Lancers had lost the past three finals to St. Rose, Manasquan and Manchester, which took a 58-42 win over SJV last year.

For any other program, two championships in five years is awesome. But when you have a tradition like SJV, it’s almost like a drought even if they are second best.

Karpell did not want her young team thinking that way entering the contest.

“We just kind of turned the page and took a different approach,” she said. “I didn’t speak to the history, I didn’t speak about our failures in the past. The day of the game, I briefly glossed over what it felt like to be in the locker room after a loss of that magnitude the year prior. But I didn’t dwell on it.”

Instead, she focused on the moment at hand.

“It was more about us just preparing for Manchester, a one-game-at-a-time approach,” Karpell continued. “It was ‘Let’s go out and put our best effort out there. Whatever happens, happens, but we’re gonna compete.’

“I think that was probably the biggest thing. The previous years, we kind of got crushed. Instead of stepping up to the challenge and competing, we got a little overwhelmed, so I was trying to keep that pressure of the moment off of them. We just kind of took a simplistic approach to how we were gonna handle the game and attack Manchester,” she said.

They attacked with one of New Jersey’s top sophomores in Madison St. Rose, the tournament Most Valuable Player, who tallied 23 points (10 in the fourth quarter), seven rebounds and five steals against Manchester. In a 70-63 win over St. Rose in the semifinals, the 10th-grader had 36 points.

“I took her out [early] in the third quarter … and said, ‘Let’s just  relax,’” Karpell said. “This will be your break for the second half before we put the push on. Get a drink, catch your breath.’

“The second I put her back in, she just finished every possible play we needed her to finish,” Karpell said. “I think Katie [Hill] gave her some really strong backup.”

Hill finished with 15 points, five rebounds and three assists. She and St. Rose were the only two Lancers who saw substantial action last year. Karpell felt the sting of losing helped fuel them this time.

“They’re really the two core kids that saw significant time in last year’s playoff run,” the coach said. “I think they both played with a strong sense of confidence and the other kids on the team were able to just follow their lead. I think that was important.”

Christina Whitehead, who hit a huge 3-pointer to help accelerate the winning run, also saw a bit of time last year. But the rest of the team was getting its first championship game experience.

They came through, as Ashley O’Connor had 8 points, Megan Cahalan collected 6 points, 5 rebounds and 4 blocked shots, and players such as Emma Bruen, Mikaela Hubbard, Ciera Cevallos, Janie Bachmann and Ashley Sofilkanich provided solid minutes to keep the starters fresh for crunch time.

“Christina has graciously taken the sixth man role,” Karpell said. “Just because of match-ups and the way the lineup falls, we kept her in that role. It’s amazing to have a player with her experience and abilities to come off the bench. It gives us an offensive boost.

“Our other reserves are all freshmen, which is fantastic. They all had a couple moments where they got to get out there on the big stage and just gave us energy and do what we asked them to do,” she said.

The result leaves SJV with a 25-1 record as it prepares for another grueling challenge in the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public A Tournament. The 2nd-seeded Lancers will open March 6 against the Mount St. Mary’s-Donovan Catholic survivor. Red Bank Catholic is the top seed and St. Rose High School is No. 5.

“Even St. Thomas Aquinas, they’ve got a couple Division One seniors staring us in the eye if we play them,” Karpell said. “Five of the top 20 teams in the state are in Non-Public A South. Hopefully, our experience in this tournament will help us.”

One thing is certain – after losing championship games the past three years and then having mostly blowout victories this season, winning the SCT final proved that Vianney has finally figured out to win a big one at crunch time.

“We haven’t had a lot of games that have come down to the last couple minutes where the last few possessions really matter,” Karpell said. “With a young group, you’re always anxious as a coach when you get in a situation like that because there’s always the unknown. They really did a great job of closing the game out, making the right plays and most importantly, hitting the foul shots and grabbing the defensive rebounds that mattered the most.”