For the last seven or eight seasons, Shore Conference girls basketball has been played at a higher level than most of the state and, in some years, the Shore Conference Tournament has been deemed tougher to navigate than even the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions.
Getting through the Shore Conference is difficult to the point where one traditional area power, Rumson-Fair Haven, has yet to break through and win it. In the last seven seasons, another Shore Conference heavyweight, St. John Vianney, has lost twice in the final and suffered brutal semifinal losses five times. In those seven seasons, the Lancers went on to win NJSIAA Non-Public A four times and captured the T of C in 2009.
Winning the Shore Conference Tournament undoubtedly brings along with it a certain amount of respect for that program’s head coach. The quarterfinals, semifinals and final are played in the span of a week, so if you find yourself holding a trophy at the end of this thing, you’ve done a lot of things correctly.
By the time either No. 2 seed St. Rose or No. 5 seed Manasquan wins the Shore Conference Tournament today at Monmouth University, either Purple Roses head coach Joe Whalen or Warriors head coach Lisa Kukoda is going to have an SCT win on the resumè.
That said, it’s interesting to take a look at the differences in how Whalen, who is 56 and a high school basketball lifer, and Kukoda, 27 and in her second season as a head coach, view how the perception of them may change with a win.
“Look, I’m 56. My resumè, it is what it is at this point,” Whalen said. “I would love to win this for the girls, but hey, I’m still going to take the garbage out every Monday.”
“Being able to be associated with coaches of such a high caliber, I’m kind of blown away by it and obviously grateful for that,” said Kukoda, who played for Joe Montano at Red Bank Catholic in 2004.
Whalen is more than twice Kukoda’s age and their opinions on perception couldn’t be any more different, but they have taken similar roads to get here. The road began before they even accepted their respective jobs.
Manasquan took two out of three meetings from St. Rose in 2012 with the Purple Roses winning the SCT and the Warriors taking the rubber match in a T of C semifinal. Both head coaches, Manasquan’s Felix Romero and St. Rose’s Joe Roman, stepped down after the season.
That left two high-profile job openings to be filled. This coincided with Kukoda, an assistant under Montano at the time, deciding maybe it was time she stepped up to be a head coach. She put in for the St. Rose job, but eventually pulled her name out.
On Memorial Day weekend, the job went to Whalen, who had coached primarily boys teams, including Long Branch, but cut his teeth coaching years ago with girls AAU teams.
“I thought the same thing then as I think now, that this is a top-five coaching job in the state,” Whalen said. “I’ve said that for years and the fact these girls have advanced this far is a real testament to how special this program is.”
Meanwhile, at Manasquan, Kukoda, a teacher in the district, was linked to that job as well. It went to Brick Memorial head coach Ken Fischer, who had a change of heart nine days later. The job swung back to Kukoda, who was approved in late June, but only after some deep soul-searching in trying to decide if she was ready.
Part of the indecision was based on the fact Manasquan had won the T of C the year before and was slated to return four starters at the time. That can be daunting for any coach, let alone a rookie head coach.
“Early on, I definitely needed to make the decision,” Kukoda said. “It’s a big jump going from an assistant coach to a head coach and definitely the situation I was following, the success of the team prior, there’s definitely a lot of expectations and a lot of things that are unpredictable. I needed to make the decision that if I felt I was ready.”
Kukoda has proven herself ready, having won 39 games since her arrival, just as Whalen has been able to move St. Rose to the cusp of a second SCT title in three seasons.
One is going to win the SCT for the first time. Whether or not that matters to them, the perception of the winner is going to change, which is bound to happen when winning in your own conference is tougher than winning in your own state.