The Lady Lancers celebrate their victory win. Mike Ehrmann photos
The Lady Lancers celebrate their victory win. Mike Ehrmann photos

To understand what makes the St. John Vianney girls basketball team tick, one only needed to watch their “fun” activity toward the end of the season.

With some pressure-packed tournament games upcoming, coach Dawn Karpell gave her nationally-ranked team what she thought would be a stress-free practice by letting them play kickball, that old childhood playground favorite. The juniors were on one team, playing against the freshmen, sophomores and seniors.

“It was really heated the way it ended,” Karpell said, laughing at the memory. “I’m like ‘Guys this is supposed to be fun!’  And they were having fun but when somebody had to lose, it was like, they were not happy. I was the pitcher and the referee. They were yelling at me after every call!”

That kind of intensity is why the Lancers are once again the Queens of New Jersey girls basketball. The Holmdel-based school won a record eighth NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title March 20 at Rutgers University, taking a 72-52 victory over Rutgers Prep of Somerset.

PHOTO GALLERY: See the game photos HERE.

St. Rose, Zoe Brooks and Karpell’s daughter Julia combined for 46 points as SJV led by 11 after the first quarter and never looked back.

It was the final girls basketball TOC, as the NJSIAA has decided to do away with all Tournament of Champions after this season. It was fitting that SJV won it, since it has been their showcase since the event started in 1989. The Lancers reached six finals in the 1990s and won five of them. After Karpell, a former Lancer player, took over they won in 2009, 2016 and this season.

Look no further than that kickball game to understand how this year’s team finished 32-1 and is ranked fifth in the ESPN national poll and fourth in Maxprep’s Top 25. It’s a team that enjoys life as much as it enjoys competing.

“I think the best way to sum them up, and this is probably because of their parents, is they were just a very grounded group,” Karpell said. “Everybody’s a little different with our senior leaders. Meg Cahalan was a little bit goofy and a funny kid off the court. She’s got friends on every team we play. … But when it’s time to play, in the next breath she’s gonna put an elbow in you if she needs to.

“In between the lines they have that attitude. But they were grounded, they knew when it was time to be competitive and when it was time to be loose and have fun.”

Despite their fierceness in games – which was complemented, of course, by supreme talent – the Lancers never got completely out of control.

“On the court, they weren’t the in-your-face type,” the coach continued. “They were just so driven and competitive, even in practice. When they worked together against another team, it was ridiculous. I’ve had really competitive teams in the past, but this one hit differently. It was an inner fire – and Maddy’s leadership is probably why it was like that.”

That’s not surprising, as Madison St. Rose is one of those once-in-a-lifetime players that seems to surface more than once at SJV. The Princeton University-bound guard averaged 21.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. That, however, was only part of her value.

“What people don’t see at practice is she’s just such a leader,” Julia Karpell said. “I think that’s such an important asset [to] being such a great player. You could be great, but have a really bad attitude – but Maddy has it all.”

When St. Rose was joined in the backcourt by Trenton Catholic transfer Brooks, an awesome team became a peerless team. The junior averaged 18.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists to go along with 121 steals.

While most coaches would immediately jump at the chance to accept one of the state’s most sought-after transfers, Karpell did her due diligence. She was actually on a family vacation in Hawaii last August when the call came from her dad.  

The coach first talked to her seniors, and then her juniors about bringing Brooks on to the team. It would obviously mean reduced playing time for some.

“I just wanted them to know … this would be an opportunity [to] go from being the top team in the state to being a top team in the country,” Karpell said. “They all kind of graciously accepted it. I wanted to make sure, because those kids worked really hard for two or three years to get to where they were gonna be.”

With the addition of Brooks, this year’s team became the best in program history according to Nick Russo, who coached the 1990s powerhouse teams to nine state titles and five TOC crowns. Russo now coaches Colts Neck, which lost twice to SJV this year.

“The thing Nick pointed to is we’ve always had these special, dynamic players in our program,” Karpell said. “But the fact we had Zoey and Maddy in the backcourt, we never really had two first-team All-State kids on the team at the same time. On top of that, we had our regular mix of D-1 (Division 1 college recruits) running out there.”

SJV has from eight to 10 girls who will likely land on Division I teams in the future. Seniors who are officially signed include St. Rose (Princeton), Ashley O’Connor (Fordham) and Cahalan and Janie Bachmann, who will be teammates at Holy Cross. Junior Ashley Sofilkanich has given a verbal commitment to Bucknell. Some other players have been given offers and are still deciding.

Also worth noting is that all those schools are academic powerhouses, indicating the players’ intelligence as well as basketball skills.

“In my opinion I get to coach the best of the best,” Karpell said. “You don’t get to be really good at basketball just through natural ability. That’s part of it, but a lot of it is just work and dedication and the willingness to put all that time in.

“It’s no different in the classroom,” she continued. “They’re all ultra-driven and focused. That’s how you get to be really good. It goes hand in hand, that self-motivation driven type group. It’s kind of freaky scary that they’re so, so competitive.”

Others who opt for championships over being a starter – which they would be at nearly every other school –  are Mikaela Hubbard, Bre Delaney, Cierra Cevallos, Paige Knutsen and Aleena Dinker, among others. They all played roles in SJV’s memorable year.

With so much talent, it’s no wonder practices are like an all-star scrimmage.

“We would say all year that we’re our best competition in practice,” Julia Karpell said. “We’re a trapping team with a full court press, you’re not gonna see much better than that when we’re going against each other. That was our mindset every day in practice: bring it every day so we can get better.”

They bring it alright.

“Oh my gosh, everything is intense with us, it’s so funny,” Julia said. “In practice, someone might yell at someone, but five seconds later, they’re like ‘I’m sorry I didn’t mean to yell at you.’ You don’t take it personally.”

That philosophy applies in basketball – and even kickball.