ROAD TO THE FINAL: DEFEATED NO. 17 TOMS RIVER EAST, 72-33; NO. 8 MARLBORO, 67-25; NO. 4 ST. ROSE, 70-63

There’s a chip squarely on the shoulders of those around St. John Vianney. The reason for its existence hasn’t really been broached simply because it’s universally understood by those within the program why it rests where it does. 

The consistency of the object is conglomerate, three parts incentive, one part fulfillment.

Being a bridesmaid has never been considered an acceptable status for the Lady Lancers. They hold themselves to a higher standard - a prerequiste when you join their ranks - yet have been just that for the past three years when it comes to the Shore Conference Tournament. While a vast majority of their contemporaries would view a march to the SCT final a lofty accomplishment, the sentiment isn’t shared in Holmdel, despite the annual gauntlet that must be conquered just to participate in the prestigious championship game.

Thus, three consecutive losses to St. Rose, Manasquan and, most recently, Manchester in the title game aren’t deemed testaments to Vianney being the common opponent to claim the crown but are more regarded as subconscious motivators to end the string of disappointment and once again experience the euphoria that comes with hoisting the championship hardware. 

“It’s not a good feeling,” junior guard Katie Hill shared, reflecting on the painful post-game vantage point to observing others revel in glory. “It’s our time to put it all out there and take home a championship.”

That, in no way, should be misinterpreted as a bulletin-board material. Instead, it’s simply someone who has endured the heartbreak of ascending to the pinnacle only to be denied planting a flag at the apex . 

Top-seeded St. John Vianney has earned another shot at finishing the arduous climb. The Lady Lancers, who have not one senior on their roster, dismiss the notion that four-year experience is a necessity to accomplish the task. Instead, they’ll proclaim a unified appreciation for teamwork that manifests through staunch, active defense and a selfless offensive style can trump the absence of upperclassmen and their run to the SCT final and a rematch with defending champion and second-seeded Manchester on Saturday at Monmouth University serves as a testimonial to those points.

Give credit to a youthful energy that has refused to wilt under the intense setting of the event for driving St. John Vianney to the precipice of their unmatched 14th SCT crown. This unit is deep, talented, diverse and acutely aware of the value of playing as a whole while sticking to a role.

There’s really no secret to the formula. In truth, it remains the same today as it was back in 1990 when Vianney won its first title. Everything is predicated off the terms dictated on defense, be it through suffocating full-court pressure or disruptive halfcourt man-to-man. Few play it with the enthusiasm and results that the Lady Lancers are used to achieving, a side to their game that has reduced opponents to a mere 32.2 points per game.

The resistance hinges on every component reading off the same page. Traps and quick rotations have reaped 445 steals. We’ll do the math for you...that’s 17.8 per game to go with the numerous turnovers created by the frenetic defensive tone that induces errant passes sailing out of bounds. 

The primary thief in the equation also happens to be the Lancers’ central offensive figure. Sensational 5-9 sophomore Madison St. Rose is responsible for 108 of those thefts (4.3 spg.), an example of a poised leader embodying the importance of working tirelessly on both ends of the floor. 

Her offensive stylings have a tendency to overshadow those defensive qualities but that’s understandable when weighing her 18.1 points and 3.4 assists a night. And, what she did in a 70-63 semifinal triumph against St. Rose served noticed that Vianney's St. Rose is blooming before our eyes.

She didn't flinch when the Purple Roses built a 38-32 advantage in the third quarter. Instead, she rose to the occasion, striking for 21 of her career-high 36 points in the fourth, sealing the verdict by relentlessly attacking the rim, drawing fouls and calmly sinking 14 of her 17 attempts from the line over the closing 5:13.

"Coaches tell me whenever you feel nerves, just breath," said St. Rose, notable from a player who doesn't give teams the chance to catch their breath when it comes to trying to contain her. "If I’m in control and relaxed and can spread that to my teammates, that’s all I want. I want them relaxed and not stressed out."

Only a sophomore, St. Rose definitely sounds like a senior. And, she is surrounded by an assortment of teammates who pose danger through their own means. 

Katie Hill, a lengthy 5-11 junior guard and varsity member since her freshman year, is a prosperous presence (11.0 ppg., 3.9 rpg., 2.3 apg., 2.7 spg.) who complements St. Rose in the scoring department with the fortitude to drive inside and touch to inflict damage along the perimeter (team-high 26 3-pointers). 

Rugged 6-2 sophomore forward Megan Cahalan (6.3 ppg., 3.5 rpg.) shows reliable recognition passing out of the high post. Sophomore guard Ashley O'Connor plays far bigger than her 5-7 listed height, battling under the boards (2.2 rpg.), moving the basketball (1.7 apg.) and dispossessing it (2.1 spg,) to go with subtle scoring touch (5.1 ppg.). And, 5-7 junior guard Emma Bruen (4.2 ppg.) applies pressure in the backcourt with an active work ethic, covering practically every inch of the court with speed and purpose to go with her finishing touch in transition.

Where Vianney can ultimately wear down the opposition resides on the bench. Junior guard Christina Whitehead is the consummate sixth man (5.5 ppg., 2.5 rpg., 1.8 spg.) and, like Hill, a Vianney staple since she was a freshman who can make a defender's acquaintance with a long jumper (23 3-pointers). She headlines an army of reserves who give SJV the luxury of playing with a heavy volume of quickness.

"I haven’t really talked about expectations this year," said St. John Vianney Dawn Karpell. "We decided, with this kind of a young group, to take things game by game, roll with the punches and prepare for who we play next and not get too far ahead of ourselves and get overwhelmed by the moment. I know for a fact that Katie and Madison aren’t happy with how they performed last year in that (championship) environment. Both of those kids are competitors. They want to put their best foot forward."

Vianney has done that all season, but particularly down the stretch, putting a nine-game winning streak on the line in the championship. The Lady Lancers are determined to keep that string of success intact with a chip on their shoulder and 'ship in their sights.

ST. JOHN VIANNEY

(24-1, 14-0 IN B NORTH)

HEAD COACH: DAWN KARPELL

14TH SEASON AT SJV, 20TH OVERALL (424-104)

SCT FINAL APPEARANCES: 22

SCT CHAMPIONSHIPS: 13
(1990-92, 1994-99, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2016)