’17-’18 SSN GIRLS BASKETBALL COACH OF THE YEAR: LISA KUKODA, MANASQUAN
The signs of Lisa Kukoda’s future calling were apparent long before she ever pursued it.
You have to go back about 15 years or so to a time when she was still Lisa Kuchinksi, a vital role player for Red Bank Catholic, loyal to defensive tenacity but also acutely aware of the responsibilities bestowed upon all those who surrounded her in the Caseys’ lineup.
“Lisa didn’t just know her job. She knew everything that everyone was supposed to do,” recalled Red Bank Catholic coach Joe Montano. “She had a quiet calm getting her message across. She never had to be loud to re-endorse a point. You could absolutely see there was potential for her to someday be a coach.”
So much, in fact, Montano brought her on as an assistant for three years following her graduation from Manhattan. And, when the coaching position at Manasquan opened in 2012, Montano was her biggest advocate, campaigning on her behalf.
The rest is history, in every sense of the word. For the past six seasons, Kukoda has built Manasquan into an image that somewhat resembles her own, at least in certain regards.
She is relatable with each player on her roster, a former reserve who spent three seasons at RBC coming off the bench before seizing a starting spot as a senior. She has compassion for injury, missing 10 games of her final year with a banged-up wrist. And, she can offer insight as a leader who ascended to such heights as a player and has maintained that air in her current capacity.
Want to talk about the talent she oversees, note that her starting five features Gatorade New Jersey Player of the Year and Virginia Tech-bound Dara Mabrey in the backcourt, 6-1 Maryland commit Faith Masonius, among the best juniors in New Jersey expressing her basketball versatility in every way, shape and form, and another dynamic junior in sharp-shooting Lola Mullaney? Understood. But, just don’t overlook how important chemistry is in the grand picture.
Kukoda certainly hasn’t.
She cultivated it into the underlying engine that drives Manasquan.
She implored Mabrey to command the court, ensured Masonius of how dominant she could be and encouraged Mullaney to cut off the ball to balance her perimeter marksmanship.
Senior guard Carly Geissler reminded Kukoda of herself each time she peaked to the bench to confirm the desired set before putting it into motion. Senior forward Emma McMenaman warmed her heart playing through pain in the paint to offer physical defense and a presence on the glass. She appreciated what Annie Mako, Maci Black and Allison Waters provided off the bench and the unwavering support up-and-comers Sharon Marks, Abby O’Shea, Ryan McCarthy and Kate Montalto infused with their enthusiasm and energy.
Once upon a time, Kukoda was each of them in some fashion, thus admiring their own unique way of making a contribution to the big picture, one that will be eternally framed in championship glory.
But, that should come as no surprise. From her playing years, when Red Bank Catholic boasted a 98-15 mark, won two Shore Conference Tournament titles and a pair of Non-Public A state championships, to her stint directing the Warriors, which has produced a 160-29 record, three SCT crowns, five straight Group 2 state titles and two Tournament of Champions trophies, Kukoda has known nothing but winning.
That’s no coincidence.
This winter, she piloted Manasquan through a 32-2 journey that included a 13-1 showing to claim the B North, a 70-52 win against St. John Vianney in the SCT title game, 95-79 triumph over Newark Tech for the fifth consecutive Group 2 state crown and culminated with a 72-60 victory over Franklin in the TOC final.
“You can have great individual players that work their tails off, but if the group can’t put it together on the court, you aren’t going to achieve what you want,” said Kukoda, the Shore Sports Network Girls Basketball Coach of the Year. “This was one if not THE most enjoyable years I’ve had. The best moments were if you watched the three that get the most attention when someone else hit a big shot. They’d all run down the floor with congratulations and they were having fun.”
Kukoda finds bliss not just in observing her players at work, but in designing the blueprints that allow them to thrive…all while raising a young family. She and her husband Matt, who is the boys basketball coach at Wall, have man-to-man principles honed by raising their two-year-old twins, Adelyn and Austin. Yet, their pillow talks at the end of the day can revert back to basketball, a part of the relationship Kukoda cherishes.
“He’s one of the smartest basketball minds I’ve ever talked to,” Kukoda said. “He is such a good coach to bounce ideas off of or to talk situations through with. It’s such an added benefit.”
So, too, is her coaching staff. Ryan McGrath and Luke Sinkhorn give Kukoda two respected sounding boards to lean on in times of need.
“I’ve been fortunate and lucky to have great coaches and talented players to work with,” Kukoda said. “Pulling all of those players together to represent our program and what our community is about has been motivating and rewarding. This is theirs. I carry on after they graduate, but it’s the players, who put in the work, the time and the dedication to the game and execute. My role is preparing them and the game plan. I have the fun job. They have the hard job.”
Spoken like a former player from modest beginnings who’s elevated into the essence of what a coach is and taken her program along for the ride.