WEST LONG BRANCH
After several text messages from different sources late in December, it warranted investigation.
And it was true.
Marina Mabrey indeed transferred back to Manasquan from Point Beach, which she and Katelynn Flaherty led to an NJSIAA Group I title just nine months earlier. This was going to be Mabrey’s second tour of duty at Manasquan after she, her older sister Michaela, and Flaherty led the Warriors to the 2012 Tournament of Champions crown.
Any high school transfer is generally met with at least some level of skepticism, but this case was an entirely different animal. This was Mabrey’s second transfer and Manasquan head coach Lisa Kukoda marked her third different coach in as many years.
The Mabrey-Flaherty era at Point Beach was, in some ways, an abject disaster despite the 26-2 record, state title and trip to the T of C semifinals. There was a little too much 2-on-5, a little too much alienation as a result and, in the end, a recipe for disaster, which is what happened when Mabrey and Flaherty transferred out after this season had already begun.
But none of that matters to Kukoda or her team as they defeated St. Rose, 61-41, on Saturday afternoon for the program’s third Shore Conference Tournament crown and first since 1983.
Say what you will about Mabrey, but Manasquan probably isn’t here without her, nor are the Warriors a serious threat in Group II beginning this week. Why has this worked? Because Kukoda, at the ripe-old age of 27 and in just her second year at the helm, has done a tremendous job managing everything, for which she will not get nearly enough credit.
“One of the first conversations I had with Marina was, ‘I’m here for you. I know it’s gonna take a little while to build that trust, but you’re gonna realize I’m gonna do anything for you,’ ” Kukoda said. “I think that that definitely has helped not only Marina, but the communication with all of these girls.”
Mabrey did not have to be the savior. Instead, this Manasquan team was already formidable before she showed up at school right after New Year’s. Mabrey sat her 30 days, per NJSIAA transfer rules, and once eligible, Kukoda brought her off the bench at first before sliding her into the starting lineup in mid-February.
“I think she handled it the right way instead of throwing me in there and making it all about one player,” Mabrey said. “She worked me into it and made sure that the team chemistry stayed along with it. She took a lot of pressure off of me and when we play as a team, it’s really hard to stop all of us.”
Manasquan moved to 11-1 with the high-major recruit in the lineup, but it hasn’t been all about her. She scored 18 points on 5-for-13 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds on Saturday, but junior guard Courtney Hagaman, the hero of Tuesday evening’s SCT semifinal stunner over St. John Vianney, finished with a game-high 20 points on 7-for-14 shooting as six different Warriors registered points.
Assuming Mabrey is done transferring high schools, people may not be happy about all of the moving around, but Kukoda and her team seem perfectly content with what has been accomplished to this point with Mabrey in the lineup. At the end of the day, the rest is just background noise.