Dara Mabrey reveres the power her last name carries in girls basketball circles, one that’s synonymous with the finest grade of hardwood excellence.

She also went to great lengths to substantiate her forename. Deeply respectful of older sisters Michaela and Marina, who etched the family into the upper echelon of Shore Conference hoops history as superstars at Manasquan, Dara was nonetheless determined to emerge from their shadows to cast one of her own.

Those shadows were quite large. Michaela a gliding, surgical 6-0 point guard, and a Marina, a physically-punishing 5-11 swing, towered over their 5-7 little sister. For that matter, so too, did her 6-2 older brother Roy as well as younger sibling Ryan, a 6-1 eighth grader. Maybe she was the runt of the litter, but Dara spent her entire career at Manasquan authoring a pedigree as a bulldog with more bite than bark and undeniably blessed with the kindred gene.

Photo by Paula Lopez
Photo by Paula Lopez

Challenging herself day after day, be it in the driveway or at nearby Orchard Park in Wall Township, Dara was the subject of tough love and constant rejection. The former in the fashion of bruising family grudge matches, 1-on-1 battles of the full-court variety designed to build up stamina, ball skills, intuition and court sensibility. The latter in the conceptual form of figuring out ways to release a shot quick enough to avoid the superficial wounds delivered when attempts were blocked back into her face.

Take it easy on the younger sister, you say? Not a chance. To commit such an act of compassion in a basketball environment would be grounds for treason in the Mabrey household. As her game evolved, so did her intellect to become a visionary on the floor who could dream up unfathomable drives or magical passes to balance her rapid, smooth release from the behind the arc and the defensive grit that was always her trademark.

Like a pair of artists admiring their muse, Michaela and Marina brim with pride over what their protégé developed into. Her defense, scoring propensity and willingness to do the less noticeable bloomed into a high-profile competitor with a resume that does anything but pale in comparison when put up against her two fiercest taskmasters.

“There was always this underlying thing that Dara would never be better than Michaela or myself,” said Marina, now a junior thriving at Notre Dame. “I always told her I never strived to be Michaela. Instead, I learned from her. She’s not 5-11 and doesn’t’ have the size but she is small and quick. We’d tell her be her own player. She ran with that.”

“We were in Atlanta for an AAU event and she was in the hotel crying her eyes out saying she would never be as good as us,” shared Michaela, a former standout at Notre Dame who is now an assistant for the women’s program at Miami (Ohio). “What she lacked in size she made up for with her heart.”

Just like certain attributes are what will forever define her sisters, Dara, who will continue to seek to carve her own niche by attending Virginia Tech, crafted her own through a passionate style both infectious and inspiring. Her fiery nature revealed in her staunch defense, her offensive prowess portrayed in silky jumpers and imaginary drives and her unselfishness unleashed with creative distribution to elevate the confidence and profile of the ensemble surrounding her.

Her four-year run with the Warriors came to a fitting conclusion on Sunday. Her 30 points, including 15 in the final period, were instrumental in Manasquan toppling defending champion Franklin, 72-60, in the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions final.

The ending not only avenged last year’s gut-wrenching 50-48 overtime loss in the season finale, but upheld an interesting sisterly trend. Michaela won the TOC twice, as a freshman at St. John Vianney in 2009 and as a senior at Manasquan in 2012. Marina claimed two as well, playing as a freshman with Michaela in ’12 and with Dara in her senior year of ‘15. And, Dara completed the trifecta with one all to herself.

Photo by Paula Lopez
Photo by Paula Lopez

Dissect the elements of such a well-rounded game and nuances can be traced to one of her siblings, including her brothers, Roy, the oldest of five, and Ryan, the youngest.

“All the skills and fundamentals had a lot to do with each of them,” said Dara. “My quickness comes from working against Roy. Michaela’s long arms forced me to shoot above taller defenders. Marina made me tougher with her physicality and Ryan gets credit for my craftiness because of how much he likes to work on ball skills and dribbling.”

Their influence and allegiance to shaping Dara into the player she became paid some impressive dividends.

Like Marina (2,526 points) and Michaela (2,117 points), Dara joined the elite 2,000-point club, wrapping up with 2,145. As a senior, she averaged 22.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.8 steals per contest while engineering Manasquan to a 32-2 mark that included a Shore Conference Tournament title and 21-game winning streak that completed it.

More telling about her final scoring total is she “only” netted 279 points (8.5 ppg.) as a freshman, due in large part to playing a supporting role behind Marina.

“She definitely developed late,” said Marina. “She also took the back seat to me as a role player. That made the road to 2,000 a little tougher but she accepted it.”

This winter, she shot 41.7 percent from long range (68 fo 163), 40.9 percent from the field (281 for 533) and a blistering 88.1 percent at the foul line (149 for 169). Her embrace for a big game evidence by 33 points in a 70-52 decision over St. John Vianney in the Shore Conference Tournament final and a 24.3 scoring rate compiled over eight outings in the do-or-die climate of that state tournament.

But, the resume doesn’t stop there. Her senior year was stamped with a second straight Gatorade New Jersey Player of the Year honor, Player of the Year honors from the Shore Conference Coaches Association and the same honor for the Shore Sports Network.

While the offense evolved over her last three years, Mabrey came on the scene as a feisty defender willing to take on the toughest assignment, regardless of the inches she might give away in a particular matchup. In the TOC final, she tackled Franklin’s 6-1 junior Diamond Miller (23.8 ppg.), a Maryland pledge, and conceded 20 points on a 6-for-21 showing from the field.

“When I was younger, defense was my favorite thing,” said Mabrey. “I embraced it because I was naturally good at it and I had this ability to get under people’s skin. I was good at reading someone’s hips with one arm up extended but not too far.”

“She never backs down,” noted Manasquan coach Lisa Kukoda, who relished her playmaker’s zeal at both ends of the floor. “She always got the toughest defensive assignment and, in turn, someone constantly in her face guarding her at the other end. This is a kid who goes through the fire every single game and keeps digging deep to find the energy and the will. She is a great example to use for any player that aspires to that level because of what she puts in to it. There is so much more than just talent responsible for the player she is.”

Funny how things work out. After starting her career trying to emulate the actions of older sisters, Mabrey came full circle to epitomizing what it takes to be a champion. That size doesn’t matter in her context, unless measuring the capacity of the heart.

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