TOMS RIVER - Veterans are indispensable for a multitude of reasons. Their experience and wisdom certainly carry influence with impressionable underclassmen. The proactive ones can also form a unique peer counsel to quell any internal strife.

Thus, when St. Rose found itself in the headlines less than two weeks before a highly-anticipated season was set to tip off, the result of a widely-publicized and unforeseen coaching change, Lovin Marsicano, Lucy Thomas, Ariana Dalia and Mikayla Markham reacted swiftly. The seniors offset turbulent times with proper perspective that protected the players, not to mention the years they’d already invested in the program, particularly their final one.

“When the whole coaching thing happened, we had to take it upon ourselves as players,’ senior forward Lovin Marsicano said. “It didn’t matter who coached us. What did was playing together and relying on our chemistry. We bonded as one to make things easier for whoever got the job.”

The senior nucleus did Janine Roth a huge favor. Their quick reaction to circle the wagons amid a tumultuous phase kept St. Rose fortified and focused while Roth, who was tabbed to replace Mary Beth Chambers after the NJSIAA ruled her ineligible to coach this season due to a 365-day rule infraction, got acclimated in her new position.

By picking up a team at a point of vulnerability, the seniors' crisis management resonated with younger and less-experienced teammates, whose sense of inclusiveness was confirmed, appreciated and worthy of reciprocation.

How juniors Sam Mikos and Lauren Lithgow chose to repay the compassion of the upperclassmen has been evident throughout the course of the campaign, but perhaps, never more magnified than on Saturday against Immaculate Heart Academy in the NJSIAA Non-Public A state final at RWJBarnabas Health Arena.

Mikos, a versatile 5-10 defensive specialist, tackled her assignment against 6-3 sophomore Anna Morris with hearty zest, limiting her to a single field goal, while the streaking shooting artistry of Lithgow made certain the momentum built at the close of the first half made a seamless transition out of intermission.

Reaping the rewards of its reliable depth and tireless defensive energy, St. Rose shook of a sluggish start to find its groove and defeat IHA, 53-38, on Saturday at the RWJBarnabas Health Arena.

St. Rose, which moved up this season from Non-Public B, donned its first state title since 2015 and first in Non-Public A since 2012. It marked the Purple Roses' eighth state title overall and punched their ticket into next week's Tournament of Champions, which was a top priority for the group from the outset of the season.

“The first practice when we had to tell them that Mary Beth was out, Mikayla said I just want to play and win. I don’t care who coaches us,” Roth recalled. “It was exactly the message I wanted the rest of the team to hear.”

Markham spoke from the heart and on behalf a group so tight knit off the floor and cohesive on it, honestly no distraction had a chance to penetrate its steely resolve.

“We knew everything was going to be all right,” Markham said. “We were going to have the same dedication and focus that we had in previous years and intensify that. Our goals didn’t change. The work we had to put in didn’t change. We had to persevere through it.”

Which explains why St. Rose was so unfazed during a first half in which its offense failed to find its touch from distance (2 for 14 from 3-point range). The remedy? Find a senior.

Deadlocked at 13-13, the Roses used the closing 4:36 of the second quarter to make a move that proved pivotal. Mikos snapped the tie on a layup promoted by a Thomas feed and Dalia, who paced a balanced scoring effort with 11 points, converted a Markham inbounds pass into an interior finish. A Thomas drive along the baseline preceded a Marsicano 3-pointer, the exclamation point on a 9-2 surge that created a 22-15 gap at the half.

“We didn’t want to start jacking up a lot of threes,” noted St. Rose assistant coach Raheem Carter, the lone holdover on the staff and a priceless touchstone for Roth and the players. “We had to start gapping and getting the ball inside more.”

While the offense began to hum and impose its identity, St. Rose’s defense was actively silencing IHA. The collection of speed to seal seams and jump into passing lanes induced a string of nine turnovers in the second quarter.

Buckets by Markham and Mikos in the frontcourt were backed by the first of three Lithgow treys to extend the advantage to 32-16 midway through the third quarter.

Mikos, Thomas and Lithgow all scored nine apiece, due in large to ball movement that the halfcourt offense is predicated upon, driven by an unselfishness that can be traced to the team’s unity nurtured by overseeing seniors. Of its 20 field goals, 15 were accompanied by an assist.

Seems about right for a team always there to lend a helping hand in a time of need.

“From day one, this is where we wanted to be,” said Dalia. “That never changed. We have great coaches, but we had to be the ones to step things up, which makes this feel so great.”

Box Score

Immaculate Heart (24-4)   08           07           08           15 --- 38
St. Rose (27-3)                  07           15           15           16 --- 53

Immaculate Heart: Brittany Gradd 0-2-4-10; A’Nayah Barker 2-0-0-4; Sam Rinaldi 1-1-0-5; Annie Walsh 0-1-0-3; Anna Morris 1-0-7-9; Kelsey Agnew 0-1-0-3; Eden Plescia 0-0-0-0; Gianna Matesic 0-0-0-0; Emma Matesic 0-0-4-4. Totals: 4-5-15-38.

St. Rose: Sam Mikos 4-0-1-9; Mikayla Markham 1-0-0-2; Lovin Marsicano 0-2-0-6; Ariana Dalia 4-0-3-11; Lucy Thomas 3-0-3-9; Abigail Antognoli 1-1-0-5; Lauren Lithgow 0-3-0-9; Amelia Medolla 0-0-0-0; Anne DiTullio 0-0-0-0; Maggie Stapleton 1-0-0-2, Maureen Stapleton  0-0-0-0; Kitty Murphy 0-0-0-0. Totals: 14-6-7---53.


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