Girls Basketball – Tournament of Champions Final Preview
Senior Kelly Campbell and her classmates on the St. John Vianney girls basketball team enter Monday’s NJSIAA Tournament of Champions final with a chance to cap one of the greatest seasons in the storied history of the program while simultaneously trying to beat the clock by doing what so many great Lancers teams have made look routine over the years.
The Lady Lancers got the monkey off their backs by winning the program’s first Shore Conference Tournament championship since 2006 and while it hasn’t been that long between Tournament of Champions titles, that is an accomplishment that has also escaped this group to this point.
By St. John Vianney standards, perhaps waiting four years to win the ultimate prize in N.J. basketball is longer than usual, but with the exception of some heartbreaking Shore Conference Tournament losses in previous years, this group of seniors has written a near-perfect script heading into Monday.
"The seniors have been working at this for four years," Campbell said. "This is everything we've really worked for, so Monday is huge for us. We're really going to get after it."
If Campbell and fellow seniors Gigi Caponegro, Tina Lebron, Vanessa Pinho and Zoe Pero can help lead the Lancers to the program’s seventh T of C title, St. John Vianney will pass Malcolm X Shabazz of Newark for the most championships in the 27-year history of the tournament. They will also complete an unbeaten season against N.J. competition, with their only loss coming against Villa Maria Academy of Erie, Pa.
“I’m excited for them, that they have this opportunity in front of them,” Karpell said following a win over Lenape in the T of C semifinals on Friday. “They are going to prepare and be ready to go.”
According to Karpell, a former standout for the Lancers in the mid 1990’s, St. John Vianney did not go unbeaten during any of its T of C championship seasons although it has finished a championship year with one lone, out-of-state loss in the past.
Standing in Vianney’s way is a Manasquan team seeking to become an N.J. dynasty despite the fact that the breakup of the 2012 Tournament of Champions team appeared to spell the end of this era before it even began. The return of Marina Mabrey – now a freshman at Notre Dame – from Point Pleasant Beach in January of 2014 reignited a Warriors team that was already laying a solid foundation to reload for 2015-16. With Mabrey back on the team after one season away, Manasquan won back-to-back Shore Conference titles in 2014 and 2015 and won the T of C last year after losing in the championship game in 2014.
This year’s Warriors roster had the makings of a team that could be dangerous this year before making taking a quantum leap back into the T of C and SCT title picture in 2017, but they showed no interest in taking a backseat this season. Manasquan again reached the Shore Conference Tournament championship game and won a third straight NJSIAA Group II title en route to a third straight T of C final appearance.
"From the beginning, they've expecting to be here," fourth-year Manasquan coach Lisa Kukoda said. "No matter what anyone else thought, they expecting to be playing for a championship and anything less was going to be a disappointment."
The road to Monday’s final included an impressive 59-50 win over Rutgers Prep – the No. 2 seed in the Tournament of Champions behind only Vianney – on Friday in Toms River. Sophomore Dara Mabrey, junior Stella Clark and freshman Faith Masonius have keyed the scoring attack for Manasquan, while junior Addie Masonius has made an impact on defense and on the backboards while also contributing scoring.
Both St. John Vianney and Manasquan come out of the Shore Conference Class A Central division and while the three games between the teams this year have been competitive, the Lancers swept the Warriors in the three games and have won by increasingly larger margins of victory after winning the first game in overtime. In the most recent meeting, St. John Vianney beat Manasquan, 59-48, in the Shore Conference Tournament final.
“I think at this point in the year, it’s almost like playground basketball,” Karpell said. “They know what we’re doing, we know what they’re doing and it’s just going to come down to who can make more plays in the game.”
"There's still a little bit of anger inside of us from those last three times because we know we're capable of coming out with a win against any team," Mabrey said. "St. John Vianney is a really good team and we're really familiar with how they play and they're really familiar with how we play so it's just going to come down to who gives more."
NJSIAA Tournament of Champions Final
Monday, March 21, 6:30 p.m.
At Sun National Bank Arena, Trenton
No. 1 St. John Vianney (30-1) vs. Manasquan (28-6)
St. John Vianney
Head Coach: Dawn Karpell, 10th season
T of C Titles: 6 (1991, 1993, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2009)
T of C Runners-up: 3 (1990, 2005, 2010)
Road to the Final: Defeated Donovan Catholic 83-33, Red Bank Catholic 59-33, Gloucester Catholic 39-25, Immaculate Heart 72-31, Lenape 57-36 (TOC)
Head Coach: Lisa Kukoda, fourth season
T of C Titles: 2 (2012, 2015)
T of C Runner-up: 2014
Road to the Final: Defeated Willingboro 68-41, Bernards 70-50, Lincoln 63-44, Rumson-Fair Haven 56-30, Sterling 47-42, High Point 68-43, University 57-49 (TOC), Rutgers Prep 59-50 (TOC)