Girls Basketball – Dawn Karpell Adds SCT Championship to Decade of Excellence
WEST LONG BRANCH - In the immediate aftermath of her team's 59-48 victory over Manasquan Saturday to win the program's first Shore Conference Tournament championship in 11 years, St. John Vianney senior Kelly Campbell slipped out of the throng formed by her teammates to find and embrace head coach Dawn Karpell.
Karpell calls Campbell "one of my coaches," so if any player understands the work and toil that Karpell has hurled toward trying to win the Shore Conference Tournament as a coach, it would be her senior captain.
And like teammates do for any good captain, they followed Campbell's lead and congratulated their coach.
In her 10 seasons at the helm, Karpell and St. John Vianney have essentially owned the loaded Shore Conference Class A Central division, lived in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals, frequented the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions and even won it in 2009. Yet, by some strange happenstance, the Lady Lancers had never won the Shore Conference Tournament under their coach who won it three times as a player.
"That's the special part for me," Karpell said. "It's not about reaching some pinnacle of coaching, but those kids, here it is their moment and they're celebrating it with me. That made me feel really good as a coach that they look at me in that light."
In years past, Karpell and her team have been close to finishing the job. Although Saturday was their first appearance in the championship game since 2011, the Lady Lancers were in the semifinals every year in between, losing to eventual champion Manasquan in each of the past two seasons - including once at the buzzer in 2014. In fact, in the most competitive conference in N.J. girls basketball, St. John Vianney has been in the semifinals every year since 2008, with losses to the eventual champion in six of those eight years.
"We hit some bad luck in certain games and certain situations along the way," Karpell said. "I can point them out, all eight or nine year's worth, but the bottom line is that Shore girls basketball is so dominant. We put three, four, five teams in the Tournament of Champions on a yearly basis."
Like the dominant St. John Vianney teams Karpell played for in the 1990's as Dawn Werner, this Lancers team won Saturday's game thanks to a number of heroes. Senior Tina Lebron hit four three-pointers and finished with 14 points. Junior center Kimi Evans established herself in the paint early en route to a 10-point game. Senior Zoe Pero scored eight points off the bench. Senior Vanessa Pinho locked down Manasquan junior guard Stella Clark, holding her to six points overall and zero field goals while Pinho was on the court.
The balance and teamwork should not be overlooked, but even Karpell acknowledges that the difference between this St. John Vianney team and teams of the past is Campbell. While Vianney's top-to-bottom roster landed them among the favorites in the SCT every year, they often ran into teams with the best player on the floor.
"The other difference (from past years) is that today I had the best player," Karpell said. "Not to go Geno (Auriemma) on you, but basically every year we've been going through the tournament, we've had a lot of really good players, but we've never had the best player. This year, we had the best player, maybe the best two players."
Vianney ran into West Virginia guard Brooke Hampton against Colts Neck in 2008 and 2010, Florida State guard Shakena Richardson and Rutgers guard Syessence Davis in 2009 and 2011 against Neptune, Fordham forward Samantha Clark and St. Rose in 2012, Boston College guard Kelly Hughes and Point Pleasant Borough in 2013 and Marina Mabrey and Manasquan in each of the past two years.
This time, it was Manasquan that ran into Kelly Campbell. The senior point guard authored a 16-point game with six rebounds and seven assists while also combining with Pinho to limit Manasquan's high-scoring backcourt of Clark and sophomore Dara Mabrey. The two Warriors guards combined for 20 points after both combined for 35 in the semifinals against Rumson-Fair Haven, with Clark scoring 26 of those. Mabrey finished with 14 on Saturday with Campbell marking her most of the time.
"With me, it's usually just a matter of confidence," Campbell said. "If I come out with confidence, I usually play okay. But it's a team game for us. We get everyone involved: Tina hitting the big threes, Vanessa on defense, getting the ball to Kimi. So it was a really good team win."
As much as the stats reveal Campbell's impact, her performance down the stretch of the game spoke volumes. She scored nine of her points in the fourth quarter, 11 if you count the two foul shots she hit in the final seconds of the third. Campbell shot 5-for-6 from the free-throw line in the quarter and scored on a pair of key layups - the second of which she scored after missing an initial layup and ripping the ball away from Manasquan freshman Faith Masonius under the basket.
"We call her 'Coach Campbell' because she's basically a member of the coaching staff," Karpell said. "Her decision-making most times is spot-on. She came to me towards the end of the game when she missed the layup and got the putback. It was a big play and she knew the mismatch. I wanted to run one thing, she wanted to run something different and I was like, 'I'm not going to tell you what to do,' and she made the play."
From 1990 to 1999, St. John Vianney won nine SCT titles in 10 years, including six in a row from 1994 to 1999. Karpell was a part of three of those teams, and that experience has fed her sentiment that she never felt the need to win an SCT title as a coach for herself. That hasn't, however, stopped her from working to get her players a chance to experience that feeling and the efforts were not lost on her players on Saturday night.
"We've come close every year," Lebron said. "No coach deserves this more than her, so to win this for her is amazing."
"Going into this, we knew how long it had been since SJV had been to the finals, let alone coach never having won this," Pinho said. "In the locker room, we just said we're going to win this one for each other and coach. In timeouts, team meetings, (we said), 'We're winning this for coach, we're winning this for coach. We do so much every single day - weekends, mornings, nights - and we're winning this today.'"
"She's been here for 10 years and hasn't won it all, so it was really important to win for her," Campbell said. "It puts it in perspective (how hard it is to win). We were really excited just to be here because last year, we lost in the semis, so it was exciting to be in the finals this year and finish it off."
A little less than 10 years ago, St. John Vianney tabbed one of its former players to be the coach and the SCT drought notwithstanding, that hire has gone as well as one can go for a basketball program. In order to check off that final box next to "13th overall Shore Conference Tournament championship," it turned out that St. John Vianney needed a coach on the floor to go with their former player on the bench.