BRICK - None of the seniors on the Brick girls soccer team were born the last time the program represented the school in an NJSIAA sectional championship game and for the first 74 minutes of Tuesday's Central Jersey Group III against Colts Neck, it was in doubt whether they would get a chance to change that fact before graduating.

Then, senior captain Danielle Christ got the best chance of the game and handled it exactly like a senior captain should.

Christ popped the game-winning goal into the upper left corner of the netting from six yards out with 5:10 to play - the lone goal of a 1-0 win over the fifth-seeded Cougars that clinched No. 2 Brick its first championship game appearance since 1996.

Brick (17-4-1) will host No. 5 Hopewell Valley on Saturday looking to clinch its first sectional title since the same year, according to head coach Mike Berardinelli.

"It's a great feeling because as a school, we haven't won since the nineties," Christ said. "From the very start, we have been saying this could be our year to win a championship and now we're one game away."

Brick senior Danielle Christ in action earlier this season vs. Freehold Township. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Although Brick had an 11-6 edge in shots and a 10-3 advantage just before the winning goal, Colts Neck senior forwards Kristi Mikula and Bella Fitzhenry caused just enough of a concern over the course of game to make for some uneasy moments during the struggle for the first goal.

That weight was lifted in the 75th minute when sophomore forward and leading scorer Reese Beggs whipped a corner kick to the near post and won her team another corner when Colts Neck sophomore goalkeeper Kaitlyn Torres fell out of bounds with the ball in her grasp.

With another chance to set up the winning goal, Beggs placed her service slightly farther from the near post and it dropped right to the feet of Christ. The senior settled it, lined up her shot and pinpointed a spot in the upper left corner of the goal where Torres had no chance to stop it.

"We ran the same play and I knew that the ball would be served perfect," Christ said. "Me and Reese have a great connection, so I knew it would be in that area. I just took a touch and placed it right over the keeper."

The Brick goal woke up Colts Neck's attack over the final five minutes. Fitzhenry ripped three shots toward the net, including two close calls. The senior forward hit a shot wide to the left of the far left post within a minute of Christ's goal and in the 79th minute, she targeted the lower left on a 22-yard direct kick and skipped it within a foot of the post.

Fitzhenry also had Colts Neck's best chance in the first half after Mikula hit her with a perfectly-timed through-ball to set up a shot from the right side that stayed just wide of the left post in the 35th minute.

That was the first serious noise Colts Neck (10-7-2) made in the game and it came after Brick hit the crossbar twice. Sophomore Abby Kennelly struck a 20-yard volley that skidded off the bar in the 16th minute and Beggs flicked a header off the bottom of the bar on a throw-in from sophomore Bella Silva. Colts Neck junior defender Jenna Kushnir covered the goal-line and cleared the ball away to end the threat.

Despite his team winning the first-half shot edge 4-2 and hitting the bar twice, Berardelli was uneasy about his team's play over the first 40 minutes.

"We did not play well in the first half," Berardinelli said. "We had a good 10, maybe 15-minute stand but they outplayed us in the first half. At halftime we said we needed to go back to what we do well, which is to play good, disciplined soccer. As the game went on, there was no doubt in my mind that we would be able to finish at some point. It was just a matter of the defense staying together."

The Green Dragons placed a premium on stopping Mikula, Colts Neck's leading scorer and a Fairfield commit. Junior centers backs Paige Noonan and Tierney Garkowski and sophomore outside defender Gianna Ferigne led the defensive effort against her. Ferigne was pushed into the starting lineup because senior captain Jada Lopez could not attend the game for personal reasons, according to Berardelli.

"They are dangerous," Berardinelli said of Colts Neck, which Brick also defeated in the Shore Conference Tournament round of 16, 2-1. "Kristi Mikula, she is a stud. She is fast and we knew we couldn't let her beat us up top. We had one of our best defenders on her and we even dropped Abby Kennelly back because she has the speed to hang with her."

With Lopez away, Brick started only two seniors on Tuesday - Christ and goalkeeper Molly Tully. The Green Dragons' prospects to win a championship over the next two years were promising considering the number of players who can return next year but with one win left to go, this is as good a chance as any to end the two-decade drought.

Brick's chances at a Central Jersey Group III title increased even more once defending Group III champion and top-seeded Allentown was eliminated by Burlington Township in the sectional quarterfinals. With a win over Shore Conference Tournament champion Toms River North this season and a hungry, talented group, Brick was not planning on backing down from the challenge, but the result caught the eye of the players and coaches nonetheless.

"This is the state tournament and you read it in the papers and online how anything can happen," Berardinelli said. "The best teams get beat because they have an off day and somebody is geared up for them. When it happened, immediately the word kind of spread that, if you take care of business, you will be playing a championship game at home."

Now, Brick will indeed have a chance to win its first sectional title in 22 years on Saturday and can do so on its home field.

"We were really surprised (at Allentown's loss) and now we really want to bring it," Christ said. "It would be even more special to win it on our home field."

 

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