By Rich Fisher | Contributing Editor
The St. Rose of Belmar girls basketball team knows how to get the job done in the biggest moments.
The Purple Roses proved that again on March 9 by taking a 45-42 victory over Immaculate Heart Academy in the NJSIAA Non-Public A championship game in Toms River. It was the second consecutive state title for St. Rose.
Entering the season, St. Rose had a new coach in Mary Beth Chambers and several new transfers joining holdovers Sam Mikos, Lauren Lithgow, Abby Antognoli and Maggie Stapleton. Those four were joined in the starting lineup by transfer Brynn Farrell, and the rest of the rotation consisted of newcomers.
“This is even more than I expected,” Mikos said on the eve of the Tournament of Champions opener. “Not only did we grow as a team; we got a bunch of new girls and we came together when a bunch of people mostly thought we wouldn’t get along. That just made us tougher. We all came together and were one giant team. We were a family, basically. At the beginning, people were saying, ‘How is a team like this, just random people coming together, going to make it work?’ But we made it work.”
They sure did, as everyone played their role in the championship game. Farrell tallied 22 points and hit big shots whenever needed. Antognoli added 14 points, including several clutch baskets and free throws. Mikos and Lithgow drained some key free throws down the stretch, and Mikos and Stapleton led the Roses with four rebounds apiece.
It was a typical day for Mikos, who does the team’s dirty work.
“I do most of the intangible stuff,” she said. “Whether it’s getting down on defense, stopping either guards or six-foot forwards, just getting stops on defense on their best defensive player, or setting flair screens to get other people open. I just do the little things to help others.”
Her work did not go unnoticed as Mikos will play for Kutztown State in Pennsylvania next year. She will do so after winning two straight state championships and serving as a captain this year along with Lithgow and Stapleton.
“Both [titles] were amazing, not just for yourself, but for your whole team,” she said. “But this year was especially amazing for me. As a senior captain, I’m a leader and I feel like that just gives it more meaning to win the states.”
A practicing Catholic, Mikos credits her faith for giving her the skills to lead.
“It’s a big part,” she said. “I’ve been in Catholic school my whole life, so it’s taught me to grow, and basically [helped] with sports, too. As a senior captain … I’m helping others grow, too. I feel [faith] is a major help. Just knowing I can make a small difference means a lot.”
St. Rose needed everyone’s small differences against IHA, as it fell behind 13-5 after one quarter. It was the same scenario as last year and, once again, the Purple Roses found a way to roar back. Farrell’s 11-point outburst in the second quarter gave St. Rose a three-point lead at halftime. IHA held its final advantage at 30-29 in the third quarter, but the Roses rallied for a 36-33 edge after three.
Clutch foul shooting sealed the deal as St. Rose scored all nine of its points from the free throw line in the final eight minutes.
“It was intense from the start,” Mikos said. “When we were down at the beginning, we knew we had to give it our all. We had to utilize all the hard work we did in practice, memorizing all their plays. We knew all their tendencies, so we just had to keep pushing and doing what we do – especially on defense, because that’s what helped us a lot during that game.”
St. Rose carried a 27-2 record into the Tournament of Champions and finished 28-3 after defeating University in the first-round and giving top-seeded Franklin all it could handle in a 55-50 loss in the semifinals. Franklin had won its first six state tournament games by an average of 41 points before being tested by the Roses.
Despite coming up two wins short of the ultimate prize, Mikos acknowledged that having Chambers at the helm was a plus in getting the team to go as far as it did.
“She’s an amazing coach,” Mikos said. “She’s so understanding and welcoming; she understands the game. It’s easy to work with her and to relate to her, not only as a coach but a person. She helped us understand our true challenge.”
In the Non-Public A title game, Trenton Catholic fell to Saddle River Day, 79-67, despite 17 points apiece from Maniya Custis and Naomi Shorts. The Iron Mikes finished with a 25-4 record.