This is it.
This is the last item Manasquan has had on its list of goals for the season.
Tonight, the Warriors take the court at the Izod Center in East Rutherford against Gill St. Bernard’s in the Tournament of Champions girls basketball final at 6:30 p.m., with the winner being crowned the best girls basketball team in New Jersey.
It hasn’t been easy getting there.
Manasquan (31-2) has had to battle tough opponents while coping with a spotlight that has shined on the Warriors constantly, thanks to the star power of senior Michaela Mabrey, the 5-foot-11 guard/forward who has earned honor after honor all season. Bound for Notre Dame, Mabrey has been selected as a McDonald’s All-American as well as Gatorade Player of the Year for New Jersey. She’s been asked to play in the Women’s Basketball Coaches’ Association All-America game, and has received the Kerwin Award as the Shore Conference’s girls basketball player of the year.
And the A student has been expected to carry a Manasquan team that has never been to this pinnacle on her back all year.
“People have set high expectations for us,” Felix Romero, Manasquan’s head coach, said recently. Those expectations have included a Shore Conference Tournament championship, which slipped from Manasquan’s grasp during a duel with St. Rose, as well as the Warriors’ current run through the state playoffs, where they defeated St. Rose last Thursday in the TOC semifinals to avenge the SCT loss and advance to tonight’s game.
“We weren’t allowed to have a bad game,” Romero said.
Most coaches will say a loss like that of the SCT final can teach a team some things, particularly a team that is rolling along comfortably. In Manasquan’s case, it was clear that loss taught the Warriors that preparation for every opponent is critical; Michaela Mabrey said Manasquan didn’t prepare enough for that SCT final. It’s fair to say that has changed in the weeks since.
While Michaela Mabrey – who eclipsed the 2,000-point mark for her career in the Central Jersey Group III quarterfinals win over Wall – has been the center of attention, it’s fair to say Manasquan hasn’t reached this point in its season solely on the strength of Mabrey as a player. While she certainly is the team’s leader, she has a capable cast around her.
Her sister Marina, a freshman, has grown into a key piece of the Warriors’ starting five, often teaming with Michaela to lead the game in scoring. Also carrying a significant portion of the scoring load has been sophomore Katelynn Flaherty. Against Teaneck in the Group III final, it was Flaherty’s 3-point shooting that kept Manasquan in the game in the first half, while the Mabrey sisters struggled to get their shots to fall.
Flaherty reached the 1,000-point mark for her career earlier this season.
Manasquan also gets support from sophomore Sam Sullivan and junior Amanda Hagaman.
Gill St. Bernard’s (29-4), like Manasquan a first-timer in the Tournament of Champions, has surprised more than a few teams this year to get to this point. The Knights, who hail from Gladstone in northwestern New Jersey, boast a 1,000-point scoring sophomore, Taylor Rooks, and a pair of senior sisters, Sam and Linnett, who are proven to be able jump in and help out where needed.
That philosophy was key in helping Gill St. Bernard’s defeat first Jackson Memorial, 58-51, in the TOC quarterfinals and also in the Knights’ 60-56 win over Shabazz High, the top seed in the tournament.
Manasquan will need to keep its composure despite whether it agrees with the referees’ decisions or not and hope for Michaela Mabrey to score early and often. The sooner she’s able to get in the flow of the offense, the sooner it will lift the spirits of those around her – and spur Manasquan to victory.