Shore Conference Tournament Championship

Saturday, Feb. 27, 5 p.m.

At Multipurpose Activities Center, Monmouth University

No. 1 St. John Vianney (24-1, 12-0 in A Central) vs. No. 3 Manasquan (20-5, 9-3 in A Central)

In just three-plus years on the job as the Manasquan High School girls basketball head coach, Lisa Kukoda has had a rather charmed experience.

In just her second season on the job, Marina Mabrey – the top player in the Shore Conference – transferred back into the program a little more than a year after leaving and the Warriors won the Shore Conference Tournament for the first time since 1983.

In her third year, Mabrey was now the top player in the state and a McDonald’s All-American to boot the coach and player led Manasquan to the 2015 NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title after losing in the championship game one year earlier.

Manasquan junior Stella Clark. (Photo by Eric Braun)

Now, despite losing a McDonald’s All-American to graduation, Kukoda has Manasquan back in the Shore Conference Tournament championship game seeking their third straight title when the Warriors take on St. John Vianney at Monmouth University on Saturday.

“It says a lot about this group that they’ve been able to fight through adversity, with all of us being able to adjust,” Kukoda said. “I needed to change our entire plan going into the season once we developed some injuries and the girls were able to adjust to that while also being able to do different things on the court and recognize their strengths and their roles for us.”

Amid all of the early success, it is easy to forget that Kukoda did not take over a ready-made winner when she accepted the job in the summer of 2012. Manasquan was coming off a Tournament of Champions title that past March with current University of Michigan sophomore Katelynn Flaherty transitioning to her junior year of high school and Mabrey preparing for her sophomore season, but by the time Kukoda took over, both had decided to transfer to Point Pleasant Beach.

As a matter of record, Kukoda was not even the first choice to take over the program – the initial offer went to former Brick Memorial coach Ken Fischer, but he decided not to take the job shortly after it was given to him. Kukoda then accepted the offer and while she wasn’t the initial choice, she turned out to be the right one.

Despite winning two Shore Conference championships and a T of C title, this season is as much an illustration of the direction of the program as any of the four Kukoda has coached. The team went a respectable 14-6 in her first season and won the WOBM Christmas Classic the following year even before Mabrey transferred back from Point Beach in the first few days of January, 2014.

The groundwork laid during that first season-and-a-half without a McDonald’s All-American has allowed the Warriors to make a smooth transition to life without Mabrey leading the way.

“They’re out to prove that they’re talented players,” Kukoda said of her team. “We obviously miss Marina a ton, but they’re out to prove that this is their team now.”

While nobody on Manasquan – or any other N.J. player this year, for that matter – is the caliber of the senior version of Marina Mabrey, the Warriors still have plenty of talent. Junior Stella Clark has been a major contributor since her freshman year and has assumed more of a scoring role after being more of a facilitator and spot-up shooter last year.

“The last two years, I was more of the point guard who set the plays up and made sure everybody was in the right spot because we had other scorers,” Clark said. “As people graduated and roles changed, I just really needed to step up. Marina was scoring 20 points for us, so that’s 20 points we had to replace and I needed to pick up a lot of that.”

Manasquan freshman Faith Masonius has joined the rivalry vs. St. John Vianney this season. (Photo by Eric Braun)

Mabrey’s younger sister, sophomore Dara Mabrey, has also been an impact player from day one and her three-pointer in the final seconds of regulation in Monday’s win over Rumson helped catapult the Warriors back into the championship game. Junior Addie Masonius moved from a key bench role to the starting lineup and her younger sister, Faith, has been one of the state’s top freshmen during her rookie season.

“We’re talented on the court, but when we become the better team on the court, that’s when he have something special,” Kukoda said. “The work ethic that this group has really has been unparalleled and that’s a credit to them and their desire to show that their still in this. This is still their title to defend.”

The striking thing about that list of players from a coaching perspective is that it is completely void of seniors. This Manasquan group still has a full year to play together after this year’s run and Mabrey and Faith Masonius each have multiple years left to add to the trophy case at their school.

“We have that edge to us,” Dara Mabrey said. “Everyone around us thought we wouldn’t be good enough to make it back here and it just feels good to prove them all wrong.”

In addition to the returning players from this year’s team, the Warriors should also welcome back current junior Victoria Galvan, who lost her entire junior season to a torn ACL. Both Galvan and senior Gillian Black suffered torn ACL’s, leaving Kukoda and the Warriors without two players who played significant time last year.

According to the tournament seeding, the No. 3 Warriors will be the underdog Saturday evening at Monmouth’s Multipurpose Activities Center against top-seeded St. John Vianney, but Manasquan played the Lancers close in each of the two regular-season meetings between the teams – the first of which went to overtime. If Manasquan can find a way to win on Saturday, not only will the Warriors claim a third consecutive title – something that only Vianney, Neptune and Asbury Park have done – but they could open up the possibility of four, perhaps even five, straight championships given the youth on hand.

The only other team to win five in a row? St. John Vianney, which won six straight from 1994 to 1999.