For lack of a better term, first-year Manasquan head coach Lisa Kukoda stepped into a situation that was unstable.
The Warriors went 32-2 and won the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions last season, but graduation losses and transfers meant no one really knew to what to make of the remaining pieces Kukoda was inheriting. With that, predictions for this Warriors squad varied.
What ensued was Kukoda getting a hold of the situation quickly and results followed. A competitive opening night loss to Red Bank Catholic was followed by a surprising early win over Holmdel and a very respectable 3-1 showing at the WOBM Christmas Classic in late December. That included losing to eventual WOBM winner Point Boro in a semifinal, but coming back the next day for a win in the third-place game against a solid Jackson Memorial team.
“I think we began to hit our stride there early and yes, WOBM was important for us,” Kukoda said. “Competing against great teams and putting up a fight against Point Boro and beating Jackson Memorial helped the confidence of the girls.”
If WOBM raised eyebrows, the real surprise to people came once divisional-play got rolling. In Class A Central, arguably New Jersey’s toughest division, Kukoda led the Warriors to a 9-5 mark which included splits with Rumson-Fair Haven and Holmdel, while they took St. John Vianney to the limit twice.
All told, that divisional record as part of a 20-9 overall record and a spot in a Central Jersey Group II semifinal will go down as a successful year for a rookie head coach who, when she got the job in June, was labeled by some as too young for a varsity position.
Instead, her team became one of those groups no one wanted to see in the postseason.
“When I first got the job, I looked at the division schedule and I just couldn’t believe it,” said the 26-year-old Kukoda, who starred for and then coached under Joe Montano at Red Bank Catholic before taking over at Manasquan.
“A 20-win season was probably a little unexpected to a lot of people outside the program, but I really thought we could come together. I think this season was very successful on many levels and to be competitive in the tough division we were in and make a name for ourselves, I think it’s fair to say this team really came together.”