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TOMS RIVER -- Mary Elizabeth Donnelly, Georgia Heine, Brooke Hollawell and Dorothy Loffredo entered the Manasquan girls basketball program with massive shoes to fill and major program expectations to meet.

The quartet tackled those challenges, two seasons marred by the COVID-19 pandemic and, as usual, a hyper-competitive Shore Conference to leave a Manasquan legacy worthy of their predecessors.

"One of the tough parts of the program is the expectations that are thrown upon you," Manasquan coach Lisa Kukoda said. "Not only from the outside but from themselves. They wanted to earn all of the same accomplishments that they saw the group before them earn. I'm just really proud of who they, how far they came and who they became as a team."

Manasquan senior Mary Elizabeth Donnelly. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Manasquan senior Mary Elizabeth Donnelly. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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Manasquan's season came to an end Friday night at RWJBarnabas Health Arena with a 64-48 loss to Rutgers Prep in the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions semifinals, but not before the Warriors captured their third straight Central Jersey Group II championship and the seventh overall group championship in the last 11 years while on the road to the T of C final four.

"That's definitely the toughest part of this," Kukoda said. "Whether it was Sunday in the (Tournament of Champions) final or tonight, this was going to be the last game they played together at Manasquan. Obviously, you never want to end it with this feeling, but we have been there before and doesn't take away from everything that they have achieved.

"To end up where we ended up this year -- winning our division, finishing number two in the Shore, winning our group as one of the final teams in the state -- this feeling will go away and those accomplishments will live on."

The four Manasquan senior starters spent their first season in the program in 2018-19 learning under then-seniors Faith Masonius and Lola Mullaney -- two stars on the 2018 Tournament of Champions winner who carried the Warriors to the Group II semifinal as seniors in 2019.

With a sophomore-dominated team, Manasquan won another Central Group II championship in 2020 to give Donnelly, Heine, Hollawell and Loffredo a taste of starting on a championship team. The group, however, would not get a chance to repeat in 2021 due to the COVID-shortened season that included a canceled NJSIAA Tournament.

Manasquan senior Brooke Hollawell contested by Rutgers Prep senior Leyla Castro. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Manasquan senior Brooke Hollawell contested by Rutgers Prep senior Leyla Castro. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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This season, Manasquan hit the 30-win mark for the first time since that 2018 squad went 32-2 and made it back to the Shore Conference Tournament final for the first time since 2018 as well. The Warriors beat second-seeded Red Bank Catholic in impressive fashion in the SCT semifinals and trailed juggernaut St. John Vianney by only two at halftime before the Lancers pulled away for another double-digit victory.

After it was St. John Vianney that ended Manasquan's SCT run, it was a locked in Rutgers Prep squad that ended the Warriors' bid for a championship appearance in the final T of C -- which will be discontinued as an event after this season. The Argonauts came out on fire with a 9-for-16 shooting performance in the first quarter that led to a 23-15 Rutgers Prep lead.

Rutgers Prep increased its lead to 12 by halftime and ballooned it to 17 in the third quarter before Manasquan clawed back to within nine late in the third. The Argonauts, though, held firm on defense and went 10-for-12 from the free-throw line in the fourth to put the game away.

"We dug down on defense more in the second half and I am proud of the way we finished the game," Kukoda said. "We just had to dig out from that start all game and it ended up being too much of a gap. Every time we felt like we got a little bit of momentum and we would chip away, they would knock down a big shot or knock down their foul shots."

Manasquan sophomore Hope Masonius. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Manasquan sophomore Hope Masonius. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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Sophomore Hope Masonius led Manasquan with 14 points, while Donnelly led the seniors with 10 for Manasquan. Heine also pitched in eight, Hollawell scored all five of her points in the first half and Loffredo contributed three.

"I said to them, 'This is tough and you're upset because this means something to you,'" Kudoda said. "And I'm proud of that -- them being members of this program means so much to these girls and to their families too."

Senior Antonia Bates led five Rutgers Prep players with at least nine points and hit three of her team's nine three-pointers. Senior Leyla Castro poured in 13 points, junior Katie Ledden and sophomore Mikayla Blokes each added 12, and senior Morgan Ryan netted nine on three threes of her own.

Rutgers Prep will play in the T of C final for the first time in program history Sunday at Jersey Mike's Arena in Piscataway, where it will face No. 1 St. John Vianney at 4 p.m. The Argonauts were no match for the Lancers when the two faced off on Feb. 13, with St. John Vianney winning by a 39-point margin.

Manasquan senior Georgia Heine. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Manasquan senior Georgia Heine. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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Kukoda, meanwhile, was happy her team got to experience the Tournament of Champions in its final year, even if it ended a game shy of Manasquan's seventh Tournament of Champions final appearance since 2012. Kukoda also played in the 2004 Tournament of Champions as a senior at Red Bank Catholic, which also made it to the semifinal round that year before bowing out.

"Tonight was their chance to be part of the TOC and that was definitely motivation," Kukoda said. "We talked about the chance to be part of the championship. The game didn't go our way, our shots didn't fall, but I'm proud of the effort they gave and how they went out."

 

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