St. John Vianney is basketball royalty in the Shore Conference. It’s the program that sprinkled the seeds back in 1990 for a grassroots movement that bloomed into one of the most competitive and respected leagues in the country.

The list of iconic players and coaches associated with the Lady Lancers is as impressive as it is endless. Their names decorate the walls of the Vianney gym, stitched into the fabric of championship banners that span three decades and speak to a prolonged level of excellence.

So, if you think the weight of being the top-seed for the Shore Conference Tournament is tough to bear, this year’s cast would suggest it’s no match when measured against the burden of sustaining the high standards set by predecessors.

Perhaps, that’s why St. John Vianney finds itself on the threshold of another title, driven to exceed the lofty annual expectations placed upon it. Some may say it’s not fair, but the ensemble carries the load by dispersing it in equal portions with no part greater than the sum.

And, it’s all held together by a coach with a unique perspective.

Back in the early ‘90s, Dawn (Werner) Karpell was one of those players at the forefront of establishing St. John Vianney as the measuring stick in the Shore Conference. She endured the pressure and now, in her 12th season piloting her alma mater, has the experience to make sure it doesn’t become overbearing for her players.

“As a middle schooler, you got to see the others play, like (St. John Vianney legends) Audrey Gomez and Sarah Coleman.,” said Karpell, who was part of three SCT championship squad and two TOC winners from 1992 through 1995. “You wanted to grow up and be like them and play in that system. It was such an exciting style of play. And, the great players were held to the same standards as everyone else.

“When I first took over, I tried to re-establish that culture. Now, it’s something we embrace. This is why they come here, to play in big games like this. And, it’s paying off in the chemistry we play with as a team.”

Together, the group has done nothing to tarnish its place in the prestigious Vianney annals. The Lady Lancers have maneuvered through the Shore Conference Tournament, sometimes with ease and, most recently, with theatre, to land in the championship for an unprecedented 21st time.

They will seek an unmatched 14th crown on Saturday against second-seeded Manasquan at 6 p.m. at the OceanFirst Bank Center on the campus of Monmouth University in what marks their third consecutive SCT final berth.

The destination didn’t come without high drama. On Tuesday night, SJV was locked in a grudge match with St. Rose, which pinned it with a painful 56-31 loss a year ago in the SCT final. The Purple Roses were on the verge of spoiling another Vianney bid when Lauren Lithgow’s putback staked the Belmar school to a 37-36 lead with 9.4 seconds to play.

However, junior guard Rahmena Henderson pushed the ball across the timeline before firing a pass to classmate Brelynn Bellamy for a corner 3-pointer as time expired, lifting the Lancers to a 39-37 triumph.

Just the fact that Henderson and Bellamy were at the core of the deciding play speaks to volume of talent at SJV’s disposal. The former is an indispensable sixth man who can handle in the backcourt, find her way to the basket and most noted for her fierce defense. The latter is just the latest player to discover her wealth of talent, a 6-0 forward with an overshadowing wingspan within the signature press yet an offensive option with deft touch around the rim as well as from the perimeter.

With each emerging as a threat, they add to an already-deep pool that poses a handful to contain.

Junior point guard Sarah Karpell is an extension of her mother on the floor. Gritty guarding the ball and economical possessing it, the 5-7 playmaker runs the show with a high basketball IQ. Senior Madison Doring and junior Sajada Bonner give defenders headaches through their versatility, each as capable taking an opponent off the dribble as she is sticking the long-range jumper.

With a slight advantage in terms of depth, don’t be surprised to see Karpell with her foot pinned on the gas, imploring the Lancers to run whenever afforded the chance to test one of the most well-conditioned teams in the state. The rise of 5-11 Katie Hill and 5-9 Christina Whitehead, a pair of up-and-coming freshmen, extends the Vianney bench just a wee bit longer at a point in the season where opponents may be shortening their own.

Senior forward Sarah Furch is the interior brawn, muscling her way on the glass to control the boards, firm defending in the lane and nimble driving to the hoop out of the high post. The six-footer will lead the charge as St. John Vianney attempts to seize a foothold inside.

But, defense remains the staple of St. John Vianney. Their cohesion in the press and open lines of communication when settling into halfcourt man-to-man creates a defensive fortress tough to penetrate.

That rigidity will be put to the test by Manasquan senior guard Dara Mabrey. The primary assignment for whoever draws her will be to make every move difficult to execute, every path impeded and every shot contested.

Achieve those pursuits, and this group could find itself memorialized in cloth just like those who came before it.

St. John Vianney (24-1, 12-0 in Class A Central)
Road to the Final: Defeated No. 16 Toms River East, 60-28, No. 8 Donovan Catholic, 70-36 and No. 4 St. Rose 39-37.
Head Coach: Dawn Karpell, 12th season (300-54, overall 376-97)
Prior SCT Final Appearances: 20
SCT Championships: 13 (1990-92, 1994-99, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2016)

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