TRENTON - For the second consecutive year, the Manasquan girls basketball team lost a crushing NJSIAA Tournament of Champions final, this time losing to Franklin, 50-48, on a shot at the buzzer Monday night at Sun National Bank Center in Trenton.

Just last year, the Warriors walked off the court as the runner-up after losing to St. John Vianney in double overtime. Although Manasquan was excruciatingly close both years, the tone of Monday’s loss could not have been any more different than the tone following last year.

Last year’s team left Trenton with an air of defiance to go with their disappointment knowing everyone from that team would be back in 2016-17. While next year’s returnees won’t be lacking for motivation this offseason, that was not part of the tenor of the postgame press conference, where the five Manasquan starters – two of them seniors – sat with their head coach.

All six were in tears, lamenting the loss to Franklin less than the loss of their team. They lamented that for the first time since 2014, they had to say goodbye to a group of seniors who were as instrumental as anyone in making sure Manasquan did not become a one-hit wonder.

From left, Manasquan seniors Stella Clark, Victoria Galvan, Addie Masonius, Nikki Stevens and Annie Heenan with NJSIAA Director Steve TImko. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

When Lisa Kukoda took over the Manasquan girls basketball program prior to the 2012-13 season, she inherited a team that lost one Division I player to graduation and two more via transfer – turning the Warriors from one of the most talent-rich girls rosters the Shore Conference has seen in recent memory to a roster of former role players and question marks.

Not only was Manasquan no longer the top choice of a pair of marquee players – Marina Mabrey and Katelynn Flaherty – but Kukoda was not the first choice of Manasquan. The athletic department initially hired former Brick Memorial coach Ken Fischer before that arrangement fell through and the school went with Kukoda – then an assistant at her alma mater Red Bank Catholic.

Both the coach and the roster of players entered that season with something to prove, and although it was a modest season for a team coming off a Tournament of Champions title in 2012, the program treaded water in the state’s toughest conference year-in and year-out before a new boatload of talent came to the rescue.

The first two players in the new wave of talent about to wash ashore in Manasquan were Stella Clark and Addie Masonius – impact additions for any program, but not the level of Mabrey or Flaherty. Mabrey is a sophomore at Notre Dame while Flaherty was an All-Big-10 first-team selection at Michigan this year, while Clark and Masonius were smaller than Mabrey and lacked the marksmanship Flaherty possessed with her shot.

In Clark and Masonius, however, Kukoda had the two perfect players to establish the revamped culture. Both made an immediate impact as hard-workers in games and practices and Clark immediately established herself as a big-game, clutch player. She hit a game-winning shot to beat Red Bank Catholic early in the season and was among the stars during Manasquan’s run to the WOBM Christmas Classic championship.

Early in Kukoda’s second year, Manasquan showed signs it was progressing ahead of schedule after losing three high-major Division I players before the prior season. Then, all of a sudden, one of those Division I players returned.

Marina Mabrey transferred bank to Manasquan from Point Pleasant Beach and became eligible in early February, 2014. Upon her return, Manasquan won the Shore Conference Tournament, the Central Jersey Group II title and made it all the way to the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions final, where they lost to Malcolm X Shabazz.

Mabrey’s return turned Manasquan from a young, scrappy bunch with the potential to contend for a Shore Conference title at some point in the next four years to the best team in the Shore Conference and one of the best in the state. The foundation, however, was laid by Kukoda, experienced players like Sam Sullivan and Courtney Hagaman, and also Clark and Masonius. When Mabrey returned, she returned to a team that was ready to fit in any player who could help the team because the team was built to play and win as a collective unit.

The Warriors went on to win their second T of C title in four years in 2015 with Clark playing an instrumental role as the starting point guard and Marina’s younger sister, Dara, starting as a freshman. Mabrey was the Gatorade Player of the Year in N.J., a McDonald’s All-American, and reached a level that few, if any, girls basketball players at the Shore had ever reached.

Because Marina Mabrey was so dominant, external expectations for Manasquan were somewhat tempered in 2015-16 despite the return of Clark, Masonius and Dara Mabrey, as well as the addition of Masonius’s versatile younger sister, Faith. Without Marina Mabrey, Manasquan lacked the dominant player who could take over a game and carry the team to a win.

That turned out to be a misguided assessment of the Warriors, who actually had multiple players who could carry the team during a stretch of game. Clark, Mabrey and Faith Masonius all performed at an all-conference level and Manasquan reached the finals of both the Shore Conference Tournament and the Tournament of Champions for the third straight year. This time, however, the senior-heavy St. John Vianney team turned them back in both games on its way to finishing the year 31-1 overall, unbeaten within N.J., and No. 1 in the state.

With everybody back Manasquan faced the same road to a championship, only this year, the Warriors had the burden of expectations. They opened the year No. 1 in the state and held that distinction until Rutgers Prep handed them their first loss on Jan. 29 and assumed that mantle all the way until Sunday, when the Argonauts lost to Franklin for the season time this season.

Not only was there pressure to live up to expectations, but there was pressure to send off Clark and Addie Masonius with a title. There was also the hope to send fellow seniors Victoria Galvan – a 6-foot-3 center who fought through a torn ACL that robbed her of her junior season – and Nikki Stevens. Both came off the bench and were two of the more upbeat players on the court and on the bench for the Warriors all year and underclassmen like Mabrey and Faith Masonius wanted to send them off winners.

"They're a great group," Kukoda said of the seniors. "They're great leaders, they're great people. We will miss them terribly and that's why I'm upset. I love these girls. This senior class has been hands-down, just a great group.”

It might have been the performance of Franklin that cracked Manasquan more than the pressure on Monday, but regardless of why the Warriors lost, they clearly felt the weight of the loss in a way that they couldn’t have last year, when none of the regular players in the rotation were seniors.

So for the first time since Kukoda has been at Manasquan, the Warriors have to say goodbye to a collection of seniors who made the program what it is and do so after a loss in the T.O.C. final.

While Mabrey left as a conquering hero who lived up to her vast potential, Clark and Masonius leave with a slightly different legacy that applies to the rest of Manasquan’s roster: overachievers.

No girls program had ever been to three straight Tournament of Champions finals. Manasquan reached four straight.

Clark came into the program as a point guard barely over five-feet in height who sometimes looked as though the ball might knock her over. She left as one of the toughest players in the conference, who once played through illness during this NJSIAA Tournament to make sure her team won a fourth consecutive NJSIAA Group championship during her career. She is headed to play at Northeastern next year.

Addie Masonius embraced the role as one of the team’s best defenders who gave up a chance to score to defer to players like Clark, the Mabrey sisters and, eventually, her younger sister in order to handle the dirty work that often goes unnoticed.

“We’re a family,” Addie Masonius said. “We learned how to be a family. Through thick and thin.”

At 5-foot-7, Dara Mabrey doesn’t strike the casual observer during warmups the way her taller, older sisters Michaela and Marina did, but once the game started, she is equally appealing. In fact, Mabrey’s brilliant junior season in which she averaged a shade under 20 points earned her both the Kerwin Award and the Gatorade Player of the Year Award in N.J., feats that her older sisters did not accomplish until they were seniors.

Even in defeat, Manasquan managed to get the most out of an off-night shooting the ball. The Warriors shot 21-for-66 (31.4 percent) from the field and just 2-for-21 (nine percent) from three-point range, but nearly pulled out a championship thanks to a 23-13 advantage in turnovers and a 20-15 edge in offensive rebounds despite giving up two-to-three inches across the board. Because of the turnovers and rebounds, Manasquan took 18 more shot attempts than Franklin did, but just could not get enough of them to go in.

If there is any player with a chance to carry the torch for the program in the wake of Clark’s graduation, it is Mabrey. With the season she just put together, it’s safe to say she is already doing it. Now, with the chip on her shoulder a little larger after this year’s loss and an uncharacteristic 6-for-24 shooting night on Monday, little – if anything – is off limits for Mabrey and Manasquan next year. Both Michaela and Marina won the Tournament of Champions as seniors, which Dara can still do. Marina won it as a freshman when her older sister was a senior, which Dara has already done.

Marina also followed up a loss in the Tournament of Champions final as a junior with a win as a senior, which is next on the list for Dara and her returning teammates. The group will again be a favorite to reach the Tournament of Champions and if the Warriors get there, they will be among the short list of serious contenders to win it.

Kukoda has said over her time as head coach that her team plays with a chip on its shoulder and thrives in the underdog role. Monday night, Franklin played the role of underdog and overachiever a little better than Manasquan did and the result was the program’s first ever Tournament of Champions title.

With just one senior graduating from Franklin’s rotation, the Warriors will have a great shot at repeating. Until then, the newly-crowned champs will sit atop the N.J. girls basketball landscape, but they still have some work to do to leave the legacy at Franklin that Clark and Masonius leave at Manasquan.

“We’re going to turn around and look at our fundamentals and we’re going to look back at how heartbreaking this game was,” Mabrey said. “The effort and heart this team has shown every single day this season is something that is never going to be taken away from us or any of (the seniors) who are leaving.”

And if Franklin is to approach that level of accomplishment, they might very well have to go through Mabrey, Faith Masonius and legacy left by this senior group to get there.

 

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