Shore Conference Tournament Championship

Saturday, Feb. 27, 5 p.m.

At Multipurpose Activities Center, Monmouth University

No. 1 St. John Vianney (24-1, 12-0 in A Central) vs. No. 3 Manasquan (20-5, 9-3 in A Central)

When Dawn Karpell was a standout guard at St. John Vianney High School, Shore Conference Tournament championships were just part of the annual experience.

Now the head coach at her alma mater, Karpell – known as Dawn Werner during her playing days – has led her Lady Lancers to more wins than any Shore Conference team during her tenure by a comfortable margin. Since the 2006-07 season, St. John Vianney has won five NJSIAA Non-Public A championships and even won a Tournament of Champions title in 2009.

Yet somehow, despite all the wins during the regular season and the exceedingly strong track record in the NJSIAA Tournament, the Lancers have not won a Shore Conference Tournament title since Karpell took over.

St. John Vianney senior Gigi Caponegro handles the ball vs. Gill St. Bernard's. (Photo by Eric Braun)

“It’s not something that bothers me for my own sake,” said Karpell, who was part of three Shore Conference championship teams in her four years as a player. “I have won this tournament as a player and I just really want our players, particularly the seniors, to have a chance to experience winning this tournament.”

The head-scratching drought is equal parts bad luck, bad timing and great competition. Since the 2008-09 season, the Shore Conference has had a team in the Tournament of Champions final in six out of the seven years and in three of those instances, two Shore teams played one another in the championship game.

“This has always been a very good conference and in the last eight or 10 years, it has gone to a different level,” Karpell said. “I feel like we’ve had some teams that were good enough to win it and came close, but when there are this many quality teams, it just take one slip-up or one bad day and you’re probably going to get beat.”

Injuries have also set the Lancers back in past year and they continue to do so this year. Senior guard Kellie Crouch was set to be a returning starter this season and managed to return from a stress fracture in her foot before the injury ultimately shut her down for the season.

“I look back at this senior group and they’ve played without a key player due to injury every year they’ve been in this tournament,” Karpell said. “We’re at the point where we know what we’re going into battle with and their eyes are on that prize.”

Even dealing with attrition and playing in conference that houses some of the state’s best teams year-in and year-out, St. John Vianney has come close in the past. The Lancers have not played in the championship game since 2011, but came painfully close to reaching the final two years ago as a No. 1 seed before losing to Manasquan at the buzzer in the semifinals.

St. John Vianney senior point guard Kelly Campbell. (Photo by Eric Braun)

Of all the years that the Lancers came so close to winning a championship – they lost to Neptune by two points in the 2009 final and fell to the Scarlet Fliers again in the 2011 championship game – this more than any other year is set up for them to win the conference. The cupboard of talent is never bare at St. John Vianney and it won’t be next year either, but the other primary contenders for the Shore Conference Tournament title are deep with returning talent for next year and St. John Vianney’s group of seniors is what has separated them from the rest of the field all year.

Senior point guard Kelly Campbell leads that senior group and is looking to deliver the program its first SCT title in 10 years before heading to play her college ball at DePaul. Fellow senior starters Gigi Caponegro, Tina Lebron and Vanessa Pinho are also looking to contribute to that cause, as are seniors Zoe Pero and Megan Furch off the deep Lancers bench.

“Every day in practice and in games, we can tell that if she could, she would be right out there with us,” Caponegro said of Karpell. “She definitely deserves to win and we’d like to help her win it.”

St. John Vianney’s last roadblock in its journey toward an elusive conference title under Karpell is two-time defending champion Manasquan. The Warriors graduated Gatorade N.J. Player of the Year, 2,500-point scorer and current University of Notre Dame standout Marina Mabrey, as well as starting guard Courtney Hagaman, but have been able to adapt and thrive with its next wave of talent.

The Warriors have no seniors in their starting lineup this year and will bring back center Victoria Galvan, who lost this entire season to a torn ACL. With the Lancers and St. Rose sporting lineups of players who will all be back, the time to strike is now for St. John Vianney.

“It means a lot just to be in it because none of us have made it this far yet,” Caponegro said. “We’re just going to get to work at practice, scout (Manasquan) and be as prepared as we can.”