Photo Gallery by Larry Murphy, Sports Pix NJ

UNION – As Doug Phillips watched current University of Virginia freshman Hana Kerner carve up his defense for four goals in last year’s NJSIAA Group III final, a number of things crossed his mind.

First, the Colts Neck girls soccer coach wanted for his team to get a chance to face that same Northern Highlands team – with its whole lineup other than Kerner back – without a game-breaking goal-scorer like that. Secondly, he knew he needed to entertain the possibility of playing with an extra defender to better matchup with the four-time defending Group III champions, something he and his team decided against in last year’s final.

One other thing crossed his mind while watching Kerner bury Colts Neck last season: in two years, Colts Neck would have a game-breaking scorer on the level of Kerner.

Phillips was right on all fronts, except for one minor detail: it did not take two years for Colts Neck’s sophomore standout to turn into the best player on the field in a state final.

Frankie Tagliaferri faced multiple defenders from the opening whistle, but it did not matter. The defense delivered just as Phillips hope it would and even the No. 1 team in the latest USA Today National Girls Soccer Rankings could not keep Tagliaferri in check for an entire game.

“I don’t think we necessarily asked Frankie to do anything other than be herself in this game,” Phillips said. “Over the course of the week, I just kind of kept reminding her that this was her game. This kind of stage are made for players of that caliber. You saw it last year with Kerner for them and this year it was Frankie making the plays to win the game.

“We said coming in, in order to have a chance, we had to keep them off the board and hope somebody like Frankie made a play, either on a set piece, a breakaway or a (penalty kick). Sure enough, that’s how it played out.”

Tagliaferri broke free of the defense for the first Colts Neck shot on goal of the game and soon after drew a penalty kick that she ultimately buried for the lone goal of Colts Neck’s 1-0 upset of previously unbeaten and four-time defending champion Northern Highlands. Immediately following the goal, Colts Neck went into defensive mode, spending the final 25 minutes of its crowning-achievement of a game looking to scratch, claw and somehow escape with a win that would mean both greatness and potential fulfilled.

“Losing here last year stunk and it wasn’t a very good feeling walking off the field, but at the same time, we knew this year would be different,” Tagliaferri said. “We weren’t wide-eyed like we were last year. We knew exactly what to expect and with the experience from last year, we knew this was going to be our year.”

It is also possible that this year had to be “the year” for Colts Neck if there was to be a championship year anytime in the near future. While this Colts Neck team has already reached heights not yet before seen in the history of the program and Tagliaferri – the Penn State recruit who finished her junior season with 28 goals and 19 assists despite missing two separate week-long stints to train with the U.S. U-17 National Team – is still only a junior, there was a feeling among the Cougars that a chance like the one they had Saturday might not come around again for a long time. Not only did Colts Neck have a chance to win a state championship and cap an unbeaten season, but the Cougars had a chance to do it by beating a team that had lost once in five seasons coming into the game.

“There was a much different mindset about this game this year,” senior Ali Russo said. “Last year, it was our first time here and we just wanted to come out and play hard in our last game. This time, there was a lot of confidence. We kept saying, ‘We can do this. We can beat them.’”

Adding to the urgency, in addition to losing three senior standouts to graduation following this season, there remains the distinct possibility to Tagliaferri also played her final high school game. Her U.S. U-17 commitment could take her away from the team during the 2016 season if the U.S. team qualifies for the U-17 World Cup in Jordan, which runs from Sept. 30 to Oct. 21.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen next year,” Tagliaferri said. “I definitely thought about it right after the game. I don’t want to leave this team if I don’t have to and it stinks that it’s not just my decision whether to play here or not. I definitely hope I can be back, but it’s good to know were able to win this now with this team and with the seniors.”

As much as Saturday was about the performance of the Colts Neck players on the field, one player not on the field had an emotional impact on the Cougars side. Senior Bridgette King – the second-leading scorer on the team behind Tagliaferri – had to sit out Saturday with a concussion she suffered in the final five minutes of Tuesday’s win over Toms River South in the Group III semifinals. King was hit in the head with the ball from close range and missed school on Wednesday and Thursday. She said she attempted to go to school Friday, but left soon after the start of the day when her symptoms persisted.

“Bridgette texted me and Amanda on Thursday when she wasn’t in school and said ‘Guys, I’m dying right now, but I’m going to make it back for Saturday,’” Russo said. “She tried to come to school and she just couldn’t and it was absolutely heartbreaking for me and Amanda to not play our last game with her, but we did it for her today.”

“Some teams might have gone into this game thinking, ‘We’re down a player and we’re not going to get it,’” Tagliaferri said. “But we put our heads up. She made sure our heads were up. “

With King relegated to cheerleader in her final high school game, Colts Neck shifted from its typical 3-5-2 formation to a 4-5-1 with Russo moving from the midfield to a center fullback position next to Visco. The two seniors and Tagliaferri were central to the game plan, as Phillips looked to give his two seniors a chance to impact the game by standing between Northern Highlands and the goal, while Tagliaferri could impact the attack while rotating between attacking center midfielder and striker.

While the usual suspects were at the center of Colts Neck’s win, the wild card was sophomore goalkeeper Lauren Feaster, who saved 11 shots in her greatest test as a goalkeeper to date. She began the season as central defender and after a look at her in goal, Phillips decided she was the best option to fill the open spot.

“She is a natural athlete and she has that competitive fire and the demeanor that I thought would translate well,” Phillips said. “She made some great plays in the preseason and really did some good things over the course of the year, but you never truly know how a game like this is going to go because she just doesn’t get tested much during the course of the season.”

As the Shore Conference’s most dominant team over the course of the season, Colts Neck rarely gave up enough shots in a game to get a complete look at what Feaster could do in 80 minutes, but Feaster, her coaches and teammates knew that would change against Northern Highlands on Saturday.

“I was very excited to play (Northern Highlands),” Feaster said. “I was very anxious to get to play them because I’ve never had the experience of having so many shots on me and being bombarded. I was excited. I was nervous, also, but once the first save came, I began to get used to it and I stopped thinking about where I am and who I’m playing and just focused on my responsibilities.”

It might have been the perfect plan, but it was not quite the perfect game for Colts Neck. Besides missing King, freshman Kristi Mikula got hit in the head by the ball early in the game and did not return. As far as the game goes, Tagliaferri was not only denied by Klatt on a rare breakaway allowed by the Highlanders defense, but she was visibly shaken by missing what could have been Colts Neck’s best chance to score a goal.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh crap, that was our chance to score and I missed it,’” Tagliaferri said. “By Tara Walenczyk came right over to me and told me, ‘You’re fine, we’re going to get another one and that really helped me get my focus back in time to make the next play.”

Saturday’s game did not produce the perfect storm that resulted in the upset of the season. It was a collection of talented players who have been working one full year for one more chance to prove themselves on the state final stage and one that refused to succumb to the obstacles that stood in the way.

“With some teams, the adversity will make them or break them,” Tagliaferri said. “We’re not a team that’s going to break.”

Tagliaferri did not score four goals in a rout the way Hannah Kerner did, but she lived up to everything Phillips and his staff hoped she might be for the Colts Neck program with her performance Saturday. For as accomplished as she is as an individual player, Tagliaferri was not supposed to help lead Colts Neck to a win the way Kerner led her team last year and once she missed her first chance on goal, she was not supposed to be able to get another one right away.

Last year, Phillips watched a high school star do exactly what she was supposed to do to help the team that was supposed to win put the finishing touches on a fourth of four straight finals at his team’s expense. Saturday, Phillips watched another star player help win the unwinnable game and perhaps start something completely new in Group III.

If not, Colts Neck can enjoy the end – both of a historic season and of a dynasty.