Photo Gallery by Doug Bostwick

NEPTUNE – At different stops during this season, Freehold Township coach Todd Briggs reminded his team how similar they are to the Patriots’ 2008 Shore Conference Tournament championship team, but he has always made sure to remind them of one distinction: the 2008 team finished the job.

Saturday night at Memorial Athletic Complex at Neptune’s Summerfield Elementary School, the two Patriots teams separated by six years became a lot more similar.

Freehold Township scored two first-half goals on headers by sophomore Adrian Barajas and Jason Czajkowski and the 11th-seeded Patriots held off No. 4 Wall, 2-1, to capture their second outright Shore Conference Tournament championship and first since six years ago, to the day.

(Photo by Matt Manley)

“The two teams were similar in a lot of ways, but most importantly, both teams wanted a chance to go prove people wrong and prove that they were the best every single game of the tournament,” Briggs said. “Unlike in 2008, we didn’t have the regular season we wanted, but the attitude was the same and once we got into the tournament, the confidence and the belief were there for every minute of every game.”

The two goals Saturday were the most Freehold Township has scored in one SCT game during its five-game run through the tournament. The 6-foot-4 Barajas went up over a defender to head in a cross from junior Mike Maltese in the 19th minute and Czajkowski did the same on a cross from senior Tim O’Donnell from near the same spot on the field with 40 seconds left in the first half.

“That first half was incredible,” senior goalkeeper Brian Shushkovsky said. “That was probably the best half we’ve played all year. We were fired up going to the locker room - probably a little too fired up.”

“At halftime, our guys were acting like they already won," Briggs said. "I had to knock them down a peg."

At one point leading up to the SCT, Freehold Township sat with a record of 7-5-1 following a loss to crosstown rival Freehold Boro, which had not beaten Freehold Township in more than a decade. After that 3-2 loss, the Patriots did not allow a goal until Zach Hetzel’s conversion off a turnover near the top of the 18-yard box cut the Freehold Township deficit to 2-1 in the 77th minute, a stretch of more than 500 minutes without allowing a goal.

“I was really hoping to finish strong so we could get Shush and the defense the clean sheet for the tournament,” Briggs said. “Unfortunately, we had a letdown that cost us the shutout and, more importantly, it could have cost us a lot more. Fortunately it didn’t come to that.”

Freehold Township separated itself from Wall Saturday with its athleticism, evidenced by the two first-half goals by the Patriots. With the two goals on Saturday, Freehold Township scored all five of its goals in the tournament off of cross into the box, four of which came within the run of play and one off of a corner kick.

“Our athleticism has been an advantage pretty much every game and tonight was no different,” Jason Czajkowski said. “We have Adrian, who is the tallest guy on the field, and me and my brother (Kyle), we’re not tall, but we’re basketball players so we like to think we can jump. When you have guys like Maltese and O’Donnell sending crosses in the box the way they do, it makes us keep our eyes open for those runs because we know there might be a goal at the end of them.”

Maltese has made his mark on the team with his ability to send textbook crosses into the box for his tall, athletic teammates to chase. Maltese connected with Kyle Czajkowski in almost identical fashion in the win over Manalapan on Thursday and also took the corner kick that resulted in Mike Staklinski’s goal against Marlboro. Although he is another 6-foot-4 defender coming out of the back, Staklinski scored his goal after the ball hit the ground.

Sophomore Sean O’Donnell facilitated the winning goal at Christian Brothers Academy in the round of 16, finding Kyle Czajkowski with a cross from right-to-left for the header.

“We watched about 16 games worth of highlights of Wall over the last couple of years and the thing that stood out is that they are dangerous on set pieces and they don’t defend set pieces that well, and one of the reasons is they don’t have as much size in the back,'' Briggs said. "We knew if we could get some crosses into the box, we were going to have our chances to score and, fortunately for us, we’ve been finishing them lately.”

In addition to some stumbles leading into the SCT, Freehold Township barely made it out of the opening round, needing a penalty-kick victory over 22nd-seeded Colts Neck after a scoreless draw. Shushkovsky delivered two saves in the shootout and kept up his shutout streak up until a letdown in the 77th minute to allow Hetzel to score.

“It’s really hard to do what we just did, especially not giving up a goal like we did until the end,” Shushkovsky said. “We should have had the shutout today too, but I had a little lapse there and Hetzel took advantage.”

To help reinforce his blueprint for a championship, Briggs brought back former Shore Conference Player of the Year and Monmouth University standout Ryan Clark to join his coaching staff. Clark was the leader of the 2008 team, which won Class A North, earned the No. 1 seed in the SCT and proved the seed accurate by beating Marlboro in the final, 3-1.

“Having R.C. around might be the number one reason why we are where we are,” Jason Czajkowski said. “He has already done this, so he knows what it takes. He’s very calming, and he’s always there to offer advice or let you bounce something off of him. It gives you a player’s perspective in different situations and he is such a great player that you can’t help but learn just by being around him.”

After trying to live up to the standard of Freehold Township’s last SCT championship team, the current Patriots will now try to succeed where that team failed. In 2008, Freehold Township lost to Howell – the team it beat in the SCT semifinals – in overtime in the opening round of the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV Tournament. This year’s group will have a tough road to haul as the No. 9 seed in Central Jersey Group IV, a road that begins at No. 8 West Windsor-Plainsboro North on Monday and could potentially continue at No. 1 Montgomery in the sectional quarterfinals on Thursday.

“We get to enjoy this for a couple of days and then it’s on to the state tournament,” Czajkowski said. “The 2008 team had a similar situation and they ended up losing in the first round, so we know we don’t get too long to celebrate. We want this to last a little longer so we want to put this one behind us, get ready for states and hopefully keep playing for another championship.”

 

Box Score

Freehold Township 2, Wall 1

1

2

F

Freehold Twp. (12-5-2)

2

0

2

Wall (14-4-2)

0

1

1

Goals (Assists): (FT) Barajas (Maltese) 19’, J. Czajkowski (T.O’Donnell) 40’; (W) Hetzel 77’
Shots: Freehold Twp., 9-8
Saves: (FT) Shushkovsky 4; (W) Wishart 1