Learning to Fly: Winless Season Fails to Subdue Upbeat Monmouth
MANASQUAN - In the final seconds, junior Jillian Vigil squared up and drained a 3-pointer, setting off an exuberant response from the Monmouth Regional bench, an outburst of sheer jubilation generally reserved for buzzer-beaters that cap monumental upsets.
In actuality, the jumper was nothing more than the final points, the closer to a 63-21 loss at the hands of Manasquan on Tuesday night, running the Falcons’ record to 0-18. Yet, amid the latest defeat, the soul of a winless team was revealed in a moment of little consequence to the outcome of the contest, but defining of what holds a team together under trying times.
Monmouth resides in the rugged Class A Central, home to Manasquan, the defending Tournament of Champions winner, St. Rose, the reigning Non-Public A state champ, as well as perennial powers Red Bank Catholic and Rumson-Fair Haven. It’s no place for the timid or faint of heart.
Despite what the record might suggest, Monmouth is neither, going out night after night against some of the best New Jersey has to offer and absorbing their best shots. It may seem like more than enough for an outmatched cast to wave a white flag. What could possibly be an incentive?
Simple: The next game on the schedule. Not accepting the daunting challenge, no matter how steep, would be an insult to the Falcons. What Monmouth lacks in the win column is made up by what’s in abundance - passion, pride, courage, camaraderie and, above all else, pure love for the game.
“If, at the end of the day, they can turn to the person on their left or right and say 'I left it all out there, but there was a better team on the court,' then they have nothing to hang their heads about,” said second-year coach Laura Forbes, who has more than a little skin in the game,
Forbes is a Monmouth alum who helped the Falcons to a Central Jersey Group 3 crown in 2006, a season that ended with a loss to mighty Shabazz in the state final. She's determined to restore a link to the decorated past, one step at a time.
“I never have to worry about whether they are going to show up,” she said. “I think in life, that’s half the battle...showing up. We focus on getting a little bit better every day, and then we have something to be proud of. There are still little victories we get to celebrate, like the offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter.”
Perhaps magnifying the small things in positive light is the best practice. So, too, is re-enforcing the value of unity and appreciation for hustling from tip to final horn, ignoring the scoreboard and concentrating instead on an honest day’s work.
“We’re one. We’re a team,” said senior forward Sophia Penn. “We’re not going to give up and avoid facing obstacles. There are a lot of obstacles in life and you have to face them and grow from them. The seniors and the other varsity members aren’t going to let each other down. We’re going to keep pushing and keep it together.”
Penn alludes to an impenetrable bond resistant to mounting losses and fortified due to the fact of how galvanized the Falcons are. They are unselfish in the halfcourt, moving the ball patiently and with purpose. The bottom line is sometimes seeing development against an unforgiving schedule can be blurred even when progression is gradually being made.
And, not taking things too seriously but in stride doesn't hurt, either.
It’s why senior guard Teyonce Wilson can find the gallows humor after catching an accidental elbow that opened a cut above her left eye just three minutes into the game and left her sidelined for safety purpose over the balance of the contest.
“I was disappointed but I can rely on my teammates that they will do what they have to do and leave it all out on the court,” said Wilson. “The record doesn’t faze me anymore. It’s about coming to the gym everyday and having fun.”
What a novel viewpoint. In an era where emphasis is placed on All-this and All-that, the notion scholarship offers ride on how many headlines you can grab or the status of a team’s ranking in a subjective poll, and pressure on the elite players and programs to uphold reputations borders on unbearable, it’s the unlikely Falcons who seem to have a pretty firm grasp on the meaning of extracurricular activity and how it cultivates community.
Regardless of scores and results, Monmouth is building a chemistry that has yet to produce wins but is invaluable in enduring one defeat after another, and outsiders take notice. It may currently sit at the bottom of the steep Shore Conference mountain, but those at the top see the effort and enthusiasm of the Falcons and applaud it.
"The energy, the smiles...when it comes down to it, we're all here for the same thing, to play basketball and to coach a game," said Manasquan coach Lisa Kukoda. "Laura does an excellent job with her team. She has them playing hard, working hard and focusing on the fundamentals. All of those teaching points don't change no matter who you are. You are still trying to get your group to be the best that it can be. There's a lot to be said about girls showing up everyday, working to get better and becoming a team. They are at the same level as every other team in that sense."
"They are in probably the hardest division in the state right now," recognized Manasquan senior guard guard Lola Mullaney, who is bound for Harvard. "That doesn't stop them from showing up every game and never giving up. They are always playing as hard as they can. I have great respect for them."
Few players have enjoyed more success or are more accomplished than Faith Masonius. She and Mullaney joined with Dara Mabrey to form the nucleus of the Warriors' march to the TOC crown last season. She's been a fixture on All-Shore since her freshman year and is heading to Maryland. Masonius has experienced practically every facet of what the game has to offer at the highest level and, yet, she too, is moved by what Monmouth represents.
"I love people who love playing basketball and learning the game," said Masonius. "They are doing what they can do to the best of their ability. I do have a lot of respect for that team and it makes you appreciate the small things in life."
So, for the time being, the Falcons sit in an uncomfortable nest, cluttered by a collection of losses. But, they can find solace, for it's not for a lack trying or effort, and that continued allegiance to valued principles such as pride, hustle and heart could soon lead to some long-awaited soaring.