Saturday afternoon’s 54-42 win over Immaculate Heart Academy in the NJSIAA Non-Public A final marked the Red Bank Catholic girls basketball team’s ascension back to near the top of the heap in New Jersey, a place the Caseys had grown accustomed to being for the better part of a 12-year period ending in 2007.
People with short memories will forget 2007. That Caseys team, which finished 26-4, was head coach Joe Montano’s last to win the Shore Conference Tournament, Non-Public A and advance to the Tournament of Champions before this one. A mix of senior leadership and great underclassmen in the form of senior guard Jenna Kowal (formerly Strich), junior forward Kristina Danella and junior forward Kristina Coppolino, that was a tough, hard-nosed group that was very much in Montano’s mold.
With a fifth state title secured on Saturday, this seems like a good time to reminisce. In that year’s Non-Public A final, the Caseys were getting mauled thanks to Morris Catholic’s 1-3-1 full-court zone press. They chipped away throughout the second half and finally, a breakthrough.
With the game tied at 40 late, Coppolino hauled in an offensive rebound and kicked it out to Kowal, who buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key with under five seconds to play. Pine Belt Arena, which used to be called Ritacco Center, went absolutely ballistic and the Caseys stole a state title, 43-40. Kowal was the hero that day and that shot is in the pantheon of plays made by a Casey, especially given the fact she opened that game 2-for-10 from the field before scoring 10 of her 14 points in the fourth quarter.
A lot of time has passed since that 2007 state final, six years to the day to be exact. Kowal is out of Fairleigh Dickinson and has found her way to Montano’s bench as an assistant coach. Montano has mellowed out some and the players are different enough nowadays that Kowal notices that this group is a major contrast when compared to her teams. However, winning in the postseason remains as special as ever.
This is where Kowal comes in. From all accounts, her presence on the bench this season has been vital when dealing with a group that came into this season green in terms of postseason success.
“Jenna has been fantastic,” Montano said. “She’s still close to playing, she’s been through what they’ve been through. The things she did when she was here, the kids, a lot of them as little kids, watched her. They very much respect her and she’s done a great job.”
For lack of a better term, Kowal was a “ball player” in high school. You know the kind we’re talking about. She passed the eye test immediately upon her arrival on the floor and then backed up all of the positive assumptions with strong play and leadership on both ends of the floor.
The girls game, and Non-Public A to be specific, were very different animals back then. Players like Kowal, Danella and Coppolino went against players that were more like them.
The 2007 Non-Public South A final comes to mind when the Caseys survived a nine-point deficit to defeat Camden Catholic, 60-53, in a game in which Kowal had 19 and made several key plays down the stretch. Three days later, the Ritacco Center was deafening for 32 minutes.
On Saturday, you could hear a pin drop at Pine Belt Arena, not only during RBC’s game, but also during the Trenton Catholic Academy-Morris Catholic Non-Public B final that preceded it.
“We had girls who hit a shot and would just throw their fist in the air,” Kowal said. “This team? They’re different, but it’s still exciting, just in a different way. This is the new wave and this is just who they are I guess. This group has responded to every challenge thrown at them this season, they’ve just done it a little more quietly than when we were playing. In any case, it’s been awesome to be on both ends of a state title.”
There is one stark difference between 2007 and 2013, which will become clear today. This team, at 28-1 overall with three wins over St. John Vianney, two over Rumson-Fair Haven and one over Point Boro, is not going to get hosed when the Tournament of Champions is seeded this evening as the 2007 team was.
That 2007 team was 26-3 at the time of the TOC seeding, complete with a resume that many had pegged as good enough to be the No. 2 seed. Instead, travesty ensued as the Caseys were seeded fourth and made to play archrival No. 5 seed Rumson for a fourth time. The Caseys lost that game, 47-41.
This season, the 28-1 resume is again looking good enough to be No. 2, complete with a first-round bye. Depending on what Rancocas Valley does this afternoon in the Group IV final, the Caseys are all but assured to be no worse than No. 3. Of course, after 29 games and the grind to a state title, you would want the bye and two extra days of rest, too.
“I do (think we have done enough to be No. 2),” Montano said. “I’m not gonna lose any sleep either way, we’re proud to be here. But, I very much do. We haven’t lost to anyone in Jersey. You beat Vianney three times, you beat Immaculate Heart, who was 27-2 and do the things we’ve done. We haven’t done anything wrong, people keep looking at us and say, ‘They’re not big, they’re not fast, they don’t have a Division I player,’ but at some point, they gotta start giving us credit for the things we do well.