Capturing the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions on the girls side has proven difficult over the years, but the event is designed that way.
After the six state champions are crowned, those teams then have to get back up — both physically and mentally — to play two or three games against the other state champions inside of a week. If a team wins the TOC, it surely overcame a lot of hurdles to do so.
Winning back-to-back TOCs is rare with only Malcolm X Shabazz having done so in 2003 and 2004. Additionally, programs possessing two TOCs are scarce with St. John Vianney (six), Shabazz (five) and Red Bank Catholic (two) standing as the only members of that exclusive club.
Both of those factors will be in play this evening when the top-seeded Bulldogs (32-1) and No. 2 seed Manasquan (27-5) meet in the TOC final at 6:30 p.m. at Sun National Bank Center in Trenton.
Last season’s TOC winner, the Bulldogs will be bidding to become the first back-to-back winner since those 2003 and 2004 Shabazz squads, which featured WNBA star Matee Ajavon. Meanwhile, the Warriors are looking to join the Lancers, Bulldogs and Caseys as the only New Jersey schools with multiple TOC wins. Manasquan won its first TOC in 2012 behind Asbury Park Press Player of the Year and Notre Dame sophomore guard Michaela Mabrey.
“It’s definitely an honor to be back and just to be here. It’s a big thing for our school, our community,” said Manasquan head coach Lisa Kukoda, who is in her second season after taking over for the winning head coach of that 2012 TOC winner, Felix Romero. “This is obviously a very storied program that has been successful in the TOC, but I definitely think we’ll be in for a battle.”
After four consecutive years of gut-punch losses in the TOC semifinals, Shabazz got back over the hump last season for its fifth TOC. The dominance it displayed in 2012-13 has carried over to this season as the Bulldogs’ lone loss is to California power Salesian, which has 30 wins and will take on fellow state-power Long Beach Poly in the California Open Division state final.
Aside from that one loss, Shabazz has handled all comers inside New Jersey, but Manasquan, too, has been rolling for the better part of two months now.
With junior star Marina Mabrey in the lineup following her transfer back to Manasquan from Point Beach, the Warriors are winners of 17 straight and 18-1 overall. The one loss came in early February to St. John Vianney, a defeat the Warriors paid back to the Lancers thanks to Courtney Hagaman’s layup at the regulation horn in a Shore Conference Tournament semifinal.
Several Warriors were part of that 2012 TOC winner, but Mabrey’s resume in the state tournament is unmatched by her Shore Conference peers. For her career, Mabrey is 21-1 in the state tournament, including that 2012 TOC win and three state championships, two at Manasquan and last season at Point Beach, where she and Katelynn Flaherty led the Garnet Gulls to a 26-2 record.
“I think these girls are excited about the TOC,” Kukoda said. “A lot of the girls being on the team two years ago, they know what this is about, they know what it means and they’re pretty excited for the opportunity to get back to this point.”