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TOMS RIVER - In her initial year at the helm of Manasquan’s girls basketball team last season, Lisa Kukoda’s first order of business was making sure the Warriors’ program didn’t go off a cliff.

After winning the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions for the first time in program history in 2012, Manasquan graduated All-State guard Michaela Mabrey, who is now at Notre Dame, while two of the top players in the state, Mabrey’s sister, Marina, and guard Katelynn Flaherty, transferred to Point Beach before last season started. Meanwhile, Kukoda was the second coach to be hired for the job, as Brick Memorial coach Ken Fischer initially committed before opting out of the job two weeks later. It would have been easy to assume that the Warriors would drop off the radar with that kind of talent exodus and a new coach coming in.

Seniors Bridget Ford (at left) and Molly Bryant (#11) demonstrate the smothering defense that has become a trademark of the Manasquan girls basketball team under second-year coach Lisa Kukoda. (Photo by Scott Stump)

All Kukoda did was lead a relatively unknown team with an almost entirely new lineup to a 20-win season while playing in New Jersey’s hardest division, Shore Conference Class A Central, where powers like St. John Vianney, Red Bank Catholic and Rumson-Fair Haven lurk along with a solid Holmdel program.

“I don’t think people thought that was what was going to happen, especially after Marina and Katelynn left,’’ said senior forward Sam Sullivan, who started on the T of C-winning team in 2011-12. “We always knew we had a good team, so that didn’t get our hopes down. It just made us hungrier.”

With that eye-opening success right out of the gate, Kukoda and the Warriors are now out to take the next step of proving it was no fluke and establishing a solid program that can contend on a yearly basis.

“I think that they’re excited for the challenge,’’ Kukoda said about her team. “I said last year we were kind of the underdogs and nobody really knew about us, but this year we have to be ready. Everybody is going to come and battle against us, and everybody is going to come and bring their best game against us.”

The second-seeded Warriors (2-1) got a taste of that firsthand on Friday night at Pine Belt Arena when a scrappy Toms River East team seeded 10th took a one-point halftime lead in the WOBM Christmas Classic quarterfinals. Manasquan responded by doing a better job against the Raiders’ 2-3 zone in the second half and using its perimeter pressure to create turnovers for easy baskets on its way to a 49-38 victory. The Warriors will now face third-seeded Wall in the semifinals on Sunday at Pine Belt Arena.

Kukoda, whose husband, Matt Kukoda, is the head boys basketball coach at New Egypt, knows all about being part of a successful program. Back when she was Lisa Kuchinski, the 2004 Red Bank Catholic graduate starred as a guard for the Caseys, who are perennially one of New Jersey’s top teams. She moved on to play at Manhattan before serving as an assistant under veteran RBC coach Joe Montano until deciding to go for the Manasquan job.

Second-year coach Lisa Kukoda has helped give Manasquan a solid foundation for the future after the program was at a crossroads following a Tournament of Champions title in 2012. (Photo by Scott Stump)

The two are now friendly rivals, as the Warriors battled the Caseys into overtime before dropping their season opener this year. Manasquan could see RBC again in the WOBM Classic championship game on Monday if they both win their semifinals on Sunday.

Ironically, Kukoda is now trying to build a consistent winner at Manasquan by keeping the homegrown talent away from teams like RBC. Essentially she is out to convince the future Lisa Kukodas from Manasquan’s sending district to play for the Warriors and resist the siren call of non-public powers like her alma mater and St. John Vianney.

Second-year coach Lisa Kukoda has helped give Manasquan a solid foundation for the future after the program was at a crossroads following a Tournament of Champions title in 2012. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

“I told them right from the beginning my vision for a team and my vision for a program, and it’s not just on the court,’’ she said. “It’s being a part of the community, and representing yourself in the school. I’m hoping to be here for the long run, and what I want to do for that vision of the future is for them to help start that legacy, start that tradition.

“We want girls who look at Manasquan and say, ‘Hey, I want to go there, and I want to play there.’ I think that these girls have done a good job of making these young girls in our sending district want to come play for us, wanting to be a Manasquan Warrior. Being (a teacher) in the elementary school, I want to create that relationship with these younger girls in all of our sending districts of letting them know that this is a program, and we want you to come and play for us.”

Sustained success at a public school program in the loaded Shore Conference is a challenge for any team. Several public programs have had their runs during the last decade in the rarefied air with the non-public powers, but the graduation of an elite class, which usually is an AAU team that came to the program intact, often means the end of any championship dreams for most teams. To be able to produce a squad that can make a run at 20 wins every year and compete for titles is a daunting task, but Kukoda is up for the challenge.

It also helps that there is a proud tradition of girls basketball at Manasquan that dates back to its infancy as a program. Current ESPN analyst Doris Burke (formerly Sable) starred for the Warriors in the early 1980s, and Hall of Fame coach Dick Johnson had a career record of 475-179 from 1981-2003 that included five NJSIAA titles, a pair of Shore Conference Tournament championships and 14 division titles.

“At RBC, it’s all about the tradition,’’ Kukoda said. “It’s all about the pride in being a Casey, and that’s what I want to establish here. I think that’s what these girls have. I think the school obviously has a great athletic tradition, and I just want to continue that pride in being a Manasquan girls basketball player.”

It also helped that Kukoda had no attachment to the previous drama involving the most accomplished team in school history in 2011-12. Flaherty’s father was fired from his position as an assistant with the Warriors during that season in controversial fashion, and head coach Felix Romero stepped down after winning the T of C. Then came the transfer of the Warriors’ two top players, which Manasquan challenged on the grounds of athletic advantage. The NJSIAA ruled in favor of allowing Flaherty and Mabrey to transfer to Point Beach without penalty.

“I came in and I was like, I could care less what happened previously,’’ Kukoda said. “I could care less who was involved, and what anyone has to say about it. I tell the girls all the time, I’m only worried about what the people in this locker room have to say. We’re the ones who are going to make this happen.”

Kukoda has shown that Manasquan can keep the wins coming despite a challenging schedule without having the megawatt talent that lifted the Warriors to No. 1 in the state. The hardest step to take is the next one, which is getting back to being a championship contender and finding a way to make it out of the piranha tank in Class A Central, the Shore Conference Tournament and a Central Jersey Group II bracket featuring perennial power Rumson-Fair Haven.

“I think we can show that no matter who is on our team, we can all come together and still be great,’’ said junior guard Courtney Hagaman. “We definitely take that as a challenge to show that we can do it with the people we do have.”

This group of Warriors is in the mold of their coach, sharing the ball offensively and using smothering defense as the backbone of their attack. Eight different players scored in the win over Toms River East, led by 14 points from Hagaman, 13 from Sullivan and 10 from guard Eva Hart. The future also looks bright considering freshmen Stella Clark, Addie Masonius and Victoria Galvan are all part of the rotation. The Warriors play together and they play with enthusiasm, which was evident in the big grin Sullivan gave forward Bridget Ford after the two executed a high-low play for a layup in the second half.

“We love playing the game,’’ Sullivan said. “We know our coach loves us. When we have a good play that she specifically drew up and we execute it, we’re excited because we know she’s going to be happy.”

“Right from the very beginning I told the girls that I’m excited to be here, but I need everyone to buy into what I’m asking you to do,’’ Kukoda said. “Everybody has really accepted that and understands that we can go pretty far if everybody wants to be a part of it and buy into it.”

A program that threatened to go into the abyss has quickly regained its footing with a determined coach and a solid group of players eager to prove last season was no aberration.

“We are known now, so people do expect a lot more from us,’’ Hagaman said. “That just makes us want to play harder.”