Freehold Township boys soccer coach Todd Briggs has seen Division I talent pass through his program and although he did not know for sure if his diminutive, freshman goalkeeper from 2011 would ever amount to the level of his high-profile players, Briggs knew he had something special.

Three years older and several inches taller, senior goalkeeper Brian Shushkovsky now looks the part in addition to playing it, and his return to the program from the academy soccer ranks and an early-season wrist injury has re-ignited the Patriots.

Freehold Township goalkeeper Brian Shushkovsky recorded his third straight shutout Thursday at Marlboro, one day after verbally committing to Rutgers University. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Shushkovsky officially made a verbal commitment to Rutgers University on Wednesday and followed up his big college news with his third shutout in three games in Freehold Township’s 4-0 win over Marlboro on Thursday. Since returning from a hairline fracture in his right wrist, Shushkovsky has not allowed a goal and Freehold Township has halted a two-game skid by winning all three games with the senior in goal.

“I was anxious to get back on the field with these guys,” Shushkovsky said. “I was just about ready to come back anyway and when we lost those two games in a row, it just made me want to get on the field that much more and help out in any way I can.”

The Patriots did not have Shushkovsky last season while the senior played academy soccer, a decision that paid off when Rutgers coach Dan Donigan liked what he saw at a winter academy showcase for goalkeepers. As surprising as Shushkovsky’s departure from the program for his junior year was, it was not nearly as surprising as his arrival two years earlier.

With Freehold Township returning an All-Shore goalkeeper in Phil Horan, Shushkovsky planned to spend his freshman year as an understudy. When Horan came into the season with an injured thumb, Shushkovsky was thrown into the fire against Howell on opening day and responded by saving a penalty kick in a Freehold Township win over the ranked Rebels.

“I can’t say I looked at him and thought he’d end up going to Rutgers, but he definitely exhibited all the traits you look for in a goalkeeper and a leader,” Briggs said. “He was thrown into an unexpected situation as a freshman where we needed him to step up and he embraced it. From day one, he showed poise and a grasp of the game beyond his years and now he has the size to take him to the next level.”

Shushkovsky would spend most of the season in goal with Horan playing in the field, kicking off a potential four-year varsity career in net. Although he ultimately decided to leave the program for a season as a junior, the experience as a freshman was enough to get him back as a senior.

“That first year, five or six of us ended up playing on varsity by the middle of the year and I think that made us look around and say, ‘Wow, in three or four years, we could be really good,’” Shushkovsky said. “It made leaving last year tough, but there was always that thought that I would come back this year and try to win a championship with this group.”

Although he planned on opening the season as Freehold Township’s starting goalkeeper, Shushkovsky dealt with a lingering wrist injury that caused him enough discomfort to prompt a visit to the doctor, who diagnosed the hairline fracture and prescribed he sit out for what turned out to be two months.

With Shushkovsky sidelined, Freehold Township started the season 4-0 with junior Christian Brothers Academy transfer Mike Christina in goal. The fast start came to a halt with consecutive losses to Manalapan and Middletown North, although it was a lack of scoring and not goalkeeper issues that did in the Patriots during consecutive shutouts.

“There’s just a different level of confidence out there knowing that Shush is in goal,” Briggs said. “To his credit, Mike Christina did a stand-up job and totally did his part while he was out there, but there is something to be said for having that big-game experience and that strong presence in the back to keep us organized.”

Now on a three-game winning streak, Freehold Township has its future Scarlet Knight back in goal and an experienced team looking to make a run at the program’s first Shore Conference Tournament title since 2008 and first NJSIAA sectional title since 2010.

“We have a really unselfish group and everyone embraces their role,” Shushkovsky said. “It’s a fun team to play for. It’s why I wanted to come back so much.”