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Lancers back in TOC after collecting another state title

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By Matthew Rocco

St. John Vianney High School was built for this. A year after fighting their way to an NJSIAA Non-Public A girls basketball title, the tournament-tested Lancers defended their championship with an exclamation point.

In the 2015 group finals, the Lancers rallied from behind to overcome a 14-point deficit at halftime against Immaculate Heart Academy. With the same starting five on the court, the Lancers were well prepared for a rematch March 12 at the Pine Belt  Arena in Toms River. St. John Vianney knew what it would take to win again, and it showed in the final result.

The Lancers soared to a 72-31 victory, taking the Non-Public A trophy for a second straight year and record 17th time, as point guard Kelly Campbell guided an offensive onslaught and the team’s defense continued to shine.

Campbell was on the mark in the first half. She connected on five 3-pointers and logged 17 points before the break — an offensive outburst that contributed to a convincing open for the Lancers. They went into halftime with a 40-9 advantage.

Immaculate Heart kept pace in the third quarter, but the team failed to find an answer for St. John Vianney’s offense through the final eight minutes. Zoe Pero finished with 12 points, Kimi Evans scored 10 and Vanessa Pinho added 8. Campbell had six assists to go with her team-high 20 points.

St. John Vianney head coach Dawn Karpell said the team’s postseason run is a good showing of what the team can do.

“We’ve had pretty much the same group that was in the state tournament last year. They are focused on what our goal is,” Karpell said.

On the defensive end, the Lancers maintained constant pressure that kept Immaculate Heart out of sync. Pero, Evans and Gigi Caponegro were tasked with keeping Immaculate Heart’s prolific front-court in check. Immaculate Heart senior forwards Jordan Wilmoth and Megan Swords combined for 36 points in the team’s North Jersey, Non-Public A win over Pope John XXIII Regional High School, but they only scored a combined 19 points against the Lancers.

With a combination of talent and experience, the Lancers can beat teams in more ways than one. St. John Vianney put up fewer points in its South Jersey, Non-Public A win, but the defense brought its A-game against a Gloucester Catholic High School squad that did its best to keep the ball out of its opponent’s hands. In a 39-25 win for the sectional crown, the Lancers offered another example of their well-rounded game.

Karpell said the Lancers understand that if they defend the way they have so far, the team is capable of winning regardless of how its offensive game is going.

The Tournament of Champions (TOC) is next on the calendar, and the Lancers will join Rutgers Preparatory School, Manasquan High School, Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan, University High School of Newark and Lenape High School in a battle for the state’s ultimate bragging rights.

The Lancers have already backed up the preseason plaudits that said St. John Vianney was destined to play this late in the season. But in the TOC, the Lancers can do more than make a statement among New Jersey’s other elite programs. They can set themselves apart from the great St. John Vianney teams of the past decade.

“We’re still a few games away from solidifying where we stand, but yes, this is definitely one of the best teams I’ve had,” said Karpell, who guided the Lancers to a TOC title in 2009. “We’re excited for the Tournament of Champions, and hopefully we’ll see it through.”

The Lancers have been awarded the No. 1 seed for the TOC and have a first-round bye. They will return to the court March 18 to play the winner of the No. 4-seed Lenape vs. No. 5-seed Old Tappan first-round game in the semifinals at the Pine Belt Arena.

The TOC finals are March 21 at Sun National Bank Center in Trenton.

With six TOC titles, St. John Vianney is tied with Malcolm X. Shabazz High School for the most in history. The Lancers look to break that tie this week.

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