It was a tough ending, but it will not define the careers of the St. John Vianney girls’ basketball seniors.
Playing most of the game without star guard Zoe Brooks, the Holmdel-based school was defeated by Immaculate Heart Academy of Washington Township, 65-55 in the NJSIAA Non-Public A championship game at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena in Toms River March 4.
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The loss snapped a 38-game win streak over two seasons for SJV, which finished this year 31-1. It was only the third career loss suffered by the seniors, as they went 105-3 record over four years with three Shore Conference Tournament crowns, three South Jersey Non-Public A sectional titles, one Non-Public A state championship and one Tournament of Champions title. They were robbed of a shot at two more state and TOC titles due to Covid-19 restrictions in 2020 and 21.
With all those accomplishments, the loss to IHA will sting, but a stream of great memories will wash over it.
“We had our highs and lows, a lot more highs,” senior forward Ashley Sofilkanich said. “It was a great game today. When you have so many highs, eventually someone catches up to you. That’s what happened today. They got the best of us.”
Senior guard Bre Delaney added that “These past four years we’ve had so many great moments playing nationally ranked opponents, getting Shore Conference wins. The memories I made with the girls outside of basketball too, and coach (Dawn Karpell) as well. It’s just amazing.”
Brooks transferred from Trenton Catholic Academy after her sophomore year. She led the Iron Mikes to a 42-1 record and South Jersey Non-Public B crown as a freshman and gave the Lancers a dynamic new dimension upon her arrival last year. She will graduate with no regrets.
“I won a lot,” Brooks said. “I think I’ve lost about four total games in high school (it was three). I’m not gonna let this put me down. I definitely had a great high school career. Dawn is a great coach. She’s one of the best coaches I ever had.”
Brooks and her teammates will always remember being part of Karpell’s 500th win this season, along with beating Long Island Lutheran of New York, the nation’s No. 1 ranked team.
Asked if she considered it a special season despite the loss, Karpell exclaimed, “How can you not? And it was a special career for the seniors. They lost three games in high school. It doesn’t feel special right now but, you know, once they look back on it all. . .”
The loss was considered an upset, since Immaculate Heart was ranked No. 11 in the state and entered the game 24-4; while SJV was ranked No. 1 in New Jersey and in the top 10 nationally.
The Lancers would never use it as an excuse, but with one of the state’s top players sitting out, it was bound to make a difference. Brooks, who will play for North Carolina State in Raleigh, NC next year, started feeling pain in her left foot after SJV beat Montclair-Immaculate on Feb. 5. The issue was diagnosed as torn plantar fascia.
She played the next four games, but the pain became too much. Brooks missed three games but came back for the South Jersey sectional title game and incredibly scored 33 points and hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer in a 63-61 win over Paul VI.
The foot hurt so much after that game and Brooks was on the bench for most of the first three quarters against IHA. With the Lancers trailing 40-26 and 1:39 left in the third quarter, she volunteered to give it a shot.
“I really didn’t want to play her today,” Karpell said. “That just speaks to Zoe Brooks and the type of teammate she is.”
Sofilkanich – who had 10 points and will play for Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., next year – felt bad that Brooks was needed.
“We didn’t want to put her through that,” she said. “We gave it our best effort. They just outplayed us.”
Zoe felt that sheer adrenaline allowed her to enter the game, but she was in pain.
“I regret not playing but I just didn’t think I could do it,” she said. “I wanted to try. It’s been tough not being able to play the last couple games my senior year. I toughed it out at Paul VI. I wish I felt 100 percent to play today but I just couldn’t.”
Karpell marveled at the star guard’s courage.
“She was hurting so much the other night and gave a historical effort,” the coach said. “With her doing this for eight minutes today, it’s probably gonna set her back the next couple weeks. She gave us some juice and helped us out. It was a valiant effort for sure.”
Although Brooks did not score, her presence seemed to lift the Lancers, who sliced a 46-30 deficit to 61-55 with under a minute remaining. Julia Karpell’s 3-point attempt then tantalizingly rimmed in and out, and IHA sealed it with foul shots.
Still, it was a gutsy effort by SJV.
“We just never gave up,” said Delaney, who led the Lancers with 16 points and will play next year for Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. “That’s the type of team we are. We’re relentless. But that’s the way the game went, the way the shots fell. It stinks we didn’t have our focus early in the game so that we could follow through.”
It marked the SJV finale for Delaney, Sofilkanich, Mikaela Hubbard, Brooks and Janie Bachmann. But the Lancers still have talent coming back. Freshman Madison Kocis was uber-clutch against IHA, hitting five 3-pointers including four in the fourth quarter.
“She’s gonna be player of the year multiple times, I think,” Brooks said. “She’s really good. She can do multiple things. Dribble, pass. Her future’s very bright.”
Karpell was happy with the play of Kocis and sophomore guard Aleena Dinker, who stepped up when needed.
“They kind of got thrust into a lot when Zoe went out,” the coach said. “Collectively they absorbed those minutes. Maddie has a great future, she almost got us right back in it.”
And the Lancers will likely be back in the fight for conference and state titles next year. Dinker, Charlotte Bradley, Julia Karpell and Taylor Sofilkanich (Ashley’s sister) are all solid players who will emerge to keep the program one of New Jersey’s best.
For when it comes to SJV girls basketball, making great memories is a yearly event.