MONROE TWP. - Freehold Township senior Nick Facendo was a significant varsity contributor as a freshman, but since then, he has made himself better known for his exploits as a point guard on the basketball team.

When his Patriots' NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV final Friday at Monroe turned into a back-and-forth affair more characteristic of a basketball game than a late-tournament soccer game, it should have been no surprise which player rose to the occasion.

Facendo scored two goals in the final eight minutes, including the game-winning goal in the 75th minute, as the Patriots beat the Falcons, 3-2, to clinch their first sectional title since 2010.

"I'm so excited for my teammates," Facendo said. "Yeah, I scored the goals, but we all worked so hard to get here and they just put me in the right position and it just came together for me at the right time. I'm so happy for everyone and grateful for the opportunity to play here."

Photo by Matt Manley

Facendo entered the program with high expectations from the coaching staff and for himself, and while his success has come more in spurts, he and his coaches have been waiting for that defining season or moment. Friday, the 5-foot-10 point guard who has hit big shots on the court took his act to the pitch when his team needed him and made himself and Freehold Township a pair of moments.

"There have been lots of times over the last four years that we've been waiting and waiting and waiting for that from him," Freehold Township coach Todd Briggs said of Facendo. "There were some hard times - upperclassmen, when he was younger, asking 'When are we going to give someone else a look? Because it's just not happening.' Through all of the missed opportunities and the flashes of brilliance, I never stopped believing in the kid and today, we're rewarded for it and he's rewarded for it.

"As an educator, there is no better feeling that trying to show a young person that you believe in them and for them to fulfill that belief."

"He was having a rough beginning of the game, he had some calls that didn't go his way, but he kept battling and found a way to get the job done," said Chris Hoskins, the Patriots' leading scorer with 18 goals. "He came up huge at the end and congrats to him."

Neither team scored for the first 64 minutes of action and then the two sides erupted for a combined five goals in a span of exactly 10 minutes and four goals in a span of 3:34. Chris Anello headed in a corner kick from Mike Maltese to the back post with 15:04 left to open the scoring. The assist was his 14th of the season, tying a single-season record previously held by 2009 graduate and current assistant coach Ryan Clark.

"Me and R.C. have a competitive friendship going," Maltese said. "He trains me in the summer so he's had a big impact on my game. He joked around about taking me off of set pieces to try to protect his record."

Monroe tied the game in the 72nd on a penalty kick by Matt Mischler, the second penalty kick awarded to the Falcons on a foul by Maltese in the box.

"Shame on me for putting my team in that situation," Maltese said. "I thought I was just playing the ball both times, but I got a little too aggressive and I put us in a bad position twice. I'm glad I could help us get one back and to everyone's credit, we never put our heads down or felt sorry for ourselves. We came here to win and we just kept fighting."

Fifty seconds after the Monroe equalizer, Facendo scored the first of his two go-ahead goals, taking a through from Chris Hoskins and slotting a shot to the far right post.

Zach Hroch broke free for another equalizer 2:23 after Facendo scored for Freehold Township, but it took only 31 seconds for the Patriots to grab the lead back. Kyle Trainor headed the ball to the left side of the box and Facedo turned and struck a left-footed shot into the goal to give Freehold Township the lead for good with 5:04 left.

"The first one, I couldn't have been more open and I got the ball on my right foot because I'm not too sure about my left," Facendo said. "I the second one, I had the defender on my back and I just turned and put my left foot on it to try to get it on goal."

Monroe was the benefactor of two penalty kicks, but came away empty on the first attempt. After Maltese was whistled for a foul at the edge of the 18-yard box in the 10th minute, Patriots goalkeeper Mike Christina saved an attempt to the lower right of the frame by Alex Fernandez.

"When I first saw the call, emotions were up, but then I realized, 'I know where he's going,'" Christina said. "I just kind of told Mike, 'Don't worry, I got you,' and I made the save."

Photo by Matt Manley

"In this age of technology, you can find video of just about any player and we happened to find four penalty kicks that he (Fernandez) took," Briggs said. "As soon as I saw (Fernandez) was taking it, I got Mike's attention and pointed it out to him and he knew exactly where it was going."

The game ended with Christina clutching the ball in his 18-yard box after holding off one final run from the Falcons. The senior goalkeeper saved six shots and turned in his fourth straight standout performance of the tournament. He posted shutouts in each of the first two rounds against Colts Neck and Princeton and then came away with wins against No. 3 Princeton and Monroe, with those two teams converting just one of three penalty kicks against him.

Christina's season took a detour early in the campaign when he was hit with a red card in a 3-2 loss to Christian Brothers Academy. He received the red for a shove after the play with his team leading 2-0 and CBA came back to win with Freehold a man short and with a backup keeper.

"It's been amazing," said Christina, who started six games last year in place of injured starter Brian Shushkovsky. "This year really feels like my own just because I've had a chance to start from the beginning all the way through.

"The red card was definitely a turning point for me because maybe it took me a while to get into the high school game but that red card made me realize I had to step up and be there for my team."

Prior to the scoring spree over the last 15 minutes, both Hoskins and fellow senior Adrian Barajas nearly broke through with strikes toward the upper part of the frame that goalkeeper Nick Rios saved.

Freehold Township's sectional championship came against the same team that ended its season a year ago and on the same field where it ended. Monroe scored two second-half goals to beat the Patriots in last year's Central Jersey Group IV semifinal before losing to Manalapan in the sectional final three days later.

"We came here last year and went home with nothing," Maltese said. "That senior class last year had some of my closest friends, so to get back here and get revenge for us and even a little for them means the world."

"It was meant to be," Briggs said. "We lost to this team last year and had nine seniors broken-hearted. We came here in September and played against St. Joe's (Metuchen) and could not finish and when I saw the draw and saw the possibility of coming back here, I wasn't exactly pleased.

"I did not want to come back to this turf. It scares me, it takes away some of our advantages, like getting wide. It's ironic, because our wide player ended up scoring two goals in the middle of the field, where he probably wouldn't have been if we were on a big field. That's just meant to be."

Last year, Freehold Township caught fire and won the Shore Conference Tournament and although the Patriots came up short of a second straight conference crown this season, the coaches and players unanimously agree that the turning point to its sectional championship season came well before any postseason match.

Freehold Township coach Todd Briggs hugs Nick Facendo after Facendo's two goals on Friday. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"If you want the turning point to the season it was the (2-2 draw) at Pennington," Briggs said, referencing a non-conference game on a Saturday night at the Mercer County Prep School. "Every time we faced a challenge this year, we looked back on that game. As good as South Brunswick was, they're not Pennington. As good as Princeton was, they're not Pennington. And the same thing today: As good as Monroe is, they're not Pennington."

Freehold Township will play Washington Township in the Group IV semifinal Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. at Summerfield Elementary School in Neptune. Washington is the defending Group IV champion and is 49-2-1 over the last two seasons, which will prompt the players to once again evoke the Pennington result for reassurance.

"Washington might be Pennington," Briggs joked. "The good news is, if they are Pennington, we were good enough to tie them, so that will be our rallying cry: 'Guys, this is Pennington all over again, so let's go do it again.'"

 

Box Score

Freehold Twp. 3, Monroe 2

  1 2 F
Freehold Twp. (15-3-4) 0 3 3
Monroe (17-5) 0 2 2

Goals (Assists): (FT) Chris Anello (Mike Maltese) 65’, Nick Facendo (Chris Hoskins) 73’, Nick Facendo (Kyle Trainor) 75’; (M) Matt Mischler (PK) 72’, Zach Hroch 75’
Shots: Freehold Twp., 15-9
Saves: (FT) Mike Christina 6, (M) Nick Rios 6