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MANASQUAN - It seems somewhat fitting that the game Joe Montano has been dedicated to for the past 30 years features a sphere. 

Basketball has been at the center of his coaching universe during his time at Red Bank Catholic. He’s guided the Caseys to titles that border on too numerous to count over his time at the helm. If a doctor was to draw his blood, no doubt the physician would be shocked to learn the patient bleeds green and gold.

The school has been Montano’s foundation, first as his alma mater, a proud member of the Class of 1980, then in his professional life, where he’s served as athletic director for 29 years and the overseer of the girls basketball program for one year longer. He’s never been the sentimental type, always too consumed by the process rather than the accomplishments born out of it.

But even someone as stoic as Montano had to see his basketball life come full circle Tuesday night, like the object at the heart of the game.

Joe Montano of Red Bank Catholic observes from sidelines (Photo by Gregg Lerner)
Joe Montano of Red Bank Catholic observes from sidelines (Photo by Gregg Lerner)

Standing just a few feet away, guiding Manasquan, was coach Lisa Kukoda, already on an ascending coaching trajectory that was spawned at RBC, first as a gritty, defensive-minded guard for Montano before she returned to serve as his assistant, where she cut and sharpened her teeth and readied to embark on her own path engineering an outfit. 

And, seated a few rows behind the Caseys’ bench, one of Montano’s oldest and dearest friends, former Rumson-Fair Haven coach George Sourlis, the man for which this evening carried so much special meaning. 

Kukoda did her teacher proud, spurring her maturing Warriors to give Red Bank Catholic all it could handle, demanding her sage and his cast to dig deep to deliver something so meaningful. Only after sophomore center Ally Carman sank a layup and junior guard Sophia Sabino ensued with two critical free throws to create just enough of a gap for No. 3 RBC to put away No. 9 Manasquan, 41-40, in overtime, did Montano finally exhale and realize coaching immortality.

The victory marked the 654 of his storied run, pushing him past Sourlis to become the Shore Conference’s all-time leader in basketball coaching wins for both boys and girls, an achievement that even someone as modest as Montano couldn’t totally manage to understate.

He observed the icons of the business work the sidelines and admired the likes of Larry Hennessy, Ken O’Donnell, Ed Wicelinski and Gerry Matthews as well as Sourlis, all revered for their storied success. 

“Those names...I watched every single one of them coach,” reflected Montano, who has piloted RBC to six Shore Conference Tournament titles, two Tournament of Champions crowns, including a magical 31-0 campaign in 2000, and eight state championships. “Larry Hennessy at Mater Dei and Neptune, Kenny was a great coach at Neptune on both the boys and girls side, Ed Wicelinski was a gentleman and a professional on the bench and I grew up watching Gerry Matthews’ teams at Long Branch. To just think those guys are the people you’re in with is flattering enough.”

Joe Montano of Red Bank Catholic (Photo by Gregg Lerner)
Joe Montano of Red Bank Catholic (Photo by Gregg Lerner)

Despite the milestone coming at her team’s expense, Kukoda couldn’t have been more gracious or grateful.

“A lot of girls who have played for him can speak about the positive impact he’s had on their lives,” said Kukoda, who, in eight short years, has emulated Montano by piling up her own collection of hardware, fashioning a resume that boasts three SCT trophies, two TOC championships in five final appearances, five Group 2 state titles and six straight sectional crowns. “It goes way beyond the court or playing for him. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to continue that relationship. He’s been a mentor to me in a lot of different ways. He gives everything he has to that program. It’s so well deserved and well earned. If he’s going to achieve it, I guess I’m happy in a way it’s against me. Hopefully, that makes it mean a little more to him. He’s done so much for this game and the Shore Conference. There is no better person to accomplish it.”

“There is a deep respect and admiration for each other,” Montano offered. “I want her to do well. I’m sitting up in the top row at the Tournament of Champions in Trenton and I’m the first guy calling her on the bus when she didn’t win that first one. I want her to have great success. I don’t feel good that she lost tonight, but I feel good that she did a great job.”

The relationship between Montano and Sourlis dates back to their childhood, attending the Green and Gold basketball camp together when they were 12. Basketball was their bonding agent, be it through long car rides to scout or having that ability that is so rare in coaching ranks to freely exchange intel and insight without hesitation or suspicion.Their film archives of potential opponents so vast, Montano and Sourlis can be thought of as the Siskel and Ebert of girls basketball.

“We were never afraid to share with each other even though we were playing against each other,” said Montano, now 654-173. “We both love the game and enjoyed driving our teams to that level and we drove each other. We both are very competitive people. We’d get in a car together and drive two hours to scout, stop to get something to eat and we’ve got the salt and pepper shakers moving on the table, designing plays. Very similar to Lisa, there is a deep respect for each other. We migrated to each other.”

“Add one more thing to the list of great accomplishments for him,” said Sourlis, who crafted a mark of 653-199 over 30 years piloting RFH. “ I said this to him this morning - and he didn’t want any part of it because he was too busy thinking about the game - that when you think about the prominence of the Shore Conference as a whole and especially in girls basketball, you have to point to Joe Montano. This is a well-deserved honor for him and I’m glad it was him.”

Win No. 654 didn’t come easy or without some drama. The Caseys (18-3, 12-1), who locked up the A Central title with the triumph, clawed back from a 9-2 deficit, closing out a 16-4 second quarter with a 3-pointer from sophomore guard Justine Pissott that handed RBC a 22-17 lead at halftime. 

A 9-0 run in the fourth which featured six of Carman’s game-high 20 points as well as another triple from Pissott, who ended with 12 points, staked the Caseys to a 37-29 advantage with 3:30 left in regulation but Manasquan wasn’t done. 

Sophomore guard Brooke Hollawell accounted for the final seven points of stanza, including a 3-pointer and two free throws with 37 seconds on the clock that knotted the contest at 37-37 and forced overtime.

Carman, who repeatedly got air-tight seals in the low post snapped the deadlock by converting an entry from senior guard Fab Eggenschwiler 45 seconds into the extra session and Sabino tacked on two free throws with 26.6 seconds to go. A three by Hollawell, who ended with five triples and a game-high 22 points, closed the gap to one in the waning increments but Red Bank Catholic was able to weather the Warriors’ storm. 

"Coach Montano has been a big influence on my entire game," noted Carman. "He’s making me better and better everyday. Coming out before overtime, I said lets just finish this."

Sabino was shrewd and crisp on the point for RBC, backing five points with six boards and five assists. Pissott added six rebounds and three assists.

"We all wanted this for coach Montano," shared Sabino. "He puts the time in to make us better. It was a good feeling. It’s really amazing."

Red Bank Catholic (18-3, 12-1) 06 16 06 09 04 --- 41
Manasquan (12-9, 8-5) 13 04 10 10 03 --- 40

Red Bank Catholic: Sophia Sabino 1-0-3-5; Justine Pissott 3-2-0-12; Toni Panayides 1-0-0-2; Fab Eggenschwiler 0-0-0-0; Nicole Stanford 1-0-0-2; Casey Prior 0-0-0-0; Shaelyn Sabino 0-0-0-0; Ally Carman 9-0-2-20.
Manasquan: Maci Black 0-0-0-0; Brooke Hollawell 2-5-3-22; Rylyn Orlando 0-0-0-0; Maddie Fagan 0-0-0-0; Georgia Heine 1-1-1-6; Dorothy Loffredo 3-0-1-7; Allison Waters 1-0-0-2; Mary Donnelly 1-0-1-3; Camryn Rothery 0-0-0-0.

Follow Gregg Lerner on Twitter @gregglerner. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.

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