Meg Cahalan guards her opponent on the court during a December practice. Mike Ehrmann photo
Meg Cahalan guards her opponent on the court during a December practice. Mike Ehrmann photo

The St. John Vianney girls’ basketball team is again one of New Jersey’s premiere powers, as witnessed by the Holmdel school’s No. 1 state ranking on nj.com.

Good teams always have headline-grabbing stars, and the Lancers possess two in Madison St. Rose and Zoe Brooks. But it’s the great teams that have role players willing to do all the little things and dirty work that help lead to championships.

SJV has them as well, in the form of seniors Meg Cahalan and Ashley O’Connor. The three-year starters take as much pride in their unsung hero roles as they do in their Catholic education. Both will extend those studies, along with their basketball careers, next year as Cahalan will attend College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Mass., and O’Connor heads to Fordham University, New York City.

“That education and that culture were important to them,” said Lancers coach Dawn Karpell, whose daughter Sarah currently plays for Fordham. “In the recruiting process you kind of get a feel of the university when they have that. And it does kind of stick when the kids go and visit.

“Coming out of St. John Vianney, they have that sense of community,” she continued. “I think that added to it for them. It’s not like it’s the top of their list, but I know at those schools a lot of the coaches provide a sense of community. The things that they push on the collegiate level are similar to what we do at SJV.”

Cahalan and O’Connor are high honors students who take advanced placement courses, so education was as important to them as basketball in searching for a school.

O’Connor claims she is “as competitive in the classroom as I am on the basketball court,” so Fordham’s academic reputation drew her attention. The Sea Bright resident was sold on the school after experiencing a positive energy and atmosphere while watching the Rams practice.

The coaching staff at Holy Cross is what attracted Cahalan, along with how friendly the players were. It doesn’t hurt that Rumson-Fair Haven High School graduate Grace Munt, one of Cahalan’s best friends, plays there now; and her SJV teammate, junior Janie Bachmann, will go there in two years.

And, of course, there is the continuation of the Catholic education.

“I have been raised Catholic my whole life and going to a Catholic school was very important to me,” said Cahalan, a Middletown resident and member of the town’s St. Mary, Mother of God Parish. “I’ve always gone to Catholic schools, so it just made sense to continue that for college as well.”

O’Connor, who attends Holy Cross Parish, Rumson said, “Fordham will enable me to further grow as a person of faith. [As a] Catholic, faith is the foundation of my choices and actions. Coach [Stephanie] Gaitley and her coaching staff are more than just talented coaches. They are kind, positive, and spiritual individuals who give back to the community. I am blessed to have the opportunity to play for [her] and know that my Fordham experience will be so much more than playing basketball.”

But playing hoops is still big for both girls, and Karpell understands their value as only a coach can.

“Maddie and Zoey are going to soak up a lot of the attention, but if you come to the game you can see Ashley and Meg do things that allow a team to win,” the coach said. “They can do a lot of little, important things that don’t necessarily show up in the box score but are important to the team’s success.”

In Cahalan’s case, that means controlling the paint. At 6-foot-2, she sets solid screens and has the unique ability to pass well out of the post. She also runs the court well, which center players aren’t often asked to do. Her defensive prowess is what attracted the Holy Cross coaches.

As an added bonus, Cahalan has developed a nice jump shot, which is helpful when teams are overloading on Brooks and St. Rose. She averaged 10 points in SJV’s 2-0 start, which was third best on the team.

“A lot of us on SJV understand that it is not about having your name in the paper, it’s more important to us to win championships,” Cahalan said. “Defense is always something I have taken pride in, so if Coach Karpell needs me to take a charge or get a stop, I do whatever I can for my team. When I stepped up my sophomore year it was something I realized was necessary to win the bigger games. … I think the Holy Cross coaches enjoyed that I put defense above all and just focus on winning my matchup every night.”

The athletic O’Connor plays both the one and two guard spots and led the team with nine assists over the first two games (SJV is in Florida this week playing in the Tampa Bay Christmas Invitational). Her talent is her versatility.

“She can dice you up in a lot of different ways,” Karpell said.

O’Connor started on varsity in 10th grade mainly for defensive purposes, but she can also handle the ball, shoot well and lead the break in SJV’s transition game. As Karpell’s Swiss army knife, she does whatever is asked.

“I’ve never been a person who needs the spotlight,” O’Connor said. “I’d much rather be a role player on a winning team than the star of a losing team. I thrive in competitive games and it’s where I have the most fun.”

As for why she was recruited, she said, “I think Fordham likes my composure and that I am a versatile player with extreme athleticism and talent. Similar to SJV, Fordham likes to play quickly and prides itself on defense. I feel my defensive skills and ability to play in high pressure competitive games will translate at the next level.”

Before they move on, Cahalan and O’Connor would love to go out by winning this year’s Tournament of Champions. It will be the final one, as the NJSIAA is doing away with the event after next year.

“Our team is very talented, not just the starting five, but the next five players off the bench would likely all be starters for most other teams,” O’Connor said. “A key to our team chemistry is that we truly love each other and are close friends off the court. Couple that with hard work, talent and the best high school coach and you have a recipe for success.”

Cahalan added that “This team has tons of potential, and I am really excited to spend my senior season with them because they are some of my best friends. We are playing a very difficult schedule this year so I am very excited to see what this team can do.”