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FARMINGDALE — If there was actually a switch on the sideline it seemed almost certain that’s what Freehold Township head coach Mike Ferrando flipped midway through the first quarter, because after falling behind by two goals the Patriots completely took over in their biggest game of the season.

The Patriots, ranked No. 6 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, rallied from an early two-goal deficit and turned the tables on No. 3 Howell with nine unanswered goals in a pivotal 9-2 Shore Conference Class A North victory on Wednesday night that forced a three-way tie atop the division and prevented the Rebels from all but clinching the title outright.

Senior attackman Brandon Nunez scored a game-high three goals and added one assist, Mike Ferdinandi had a goal and three assists and senior midfielder Billy Sasso and junior attackman Matt Lach each scored twice to steer the Patriots’ (10-4, 4-1) offense.

Senior defenseman Matt O’Brien led an outstanding defensive effort that limited Howell star attackman Mark Buannic to only one goal, high-scoring attackman Jake Sherman to zero points and shut the Rebels (10-2, 5-1) out over the final 42:49. Goaltender Matt Schroepfer saw just 20 shots come his way thanks to the lockdown effort in front of him, but made several key stops and finished with nine saves. It all added up the the Patriots’ fourth straight victory this season and fourth consecutive win over Howell.

“We’ve had problems hitting the back of the net in some games and we talked about it all week that we just have to get it going, and they got it going today,” said Freehold Township head coach Mike Ferrando. “Everything clicked.”

In addition to it being a crucial divisional game that ended up putting Freehold Township, Howell and Christian Brothers Academy into a first-place tie, Wednesday night’s contest was between two big-time rivals. It’s a game that is always circled on the calendar when the schedules are released.

“It doesn’t matter what the records are - we could each have no wins - but it’s a huge game any time we play Howell,” Ferrando said. “It’s going to be a battle every time and our kids really get up for them. They know these kids and grew up with these kids.”

“We had to win this game,” Schroepfer said. “I live in Howell and wanted to beat these guys so badly. I came into the game needing to have a big performance, and after those two goals I got them out of my head and for the rest of the game I did what I needed to do.”

Howell grabbled a quick 2-0 lead on an unassisted goal by Nic Rossi at 10:29 and another unassisted strike by Buannic at 6:49. Freehold Township responded 82 seconds later when Nunez found the back of the net. From there, it was all Patriots.

“That goal definitely broke their momentum and gave us our momentum for the rest of the game,” Schroepfer said. “Just to react quickly from those two goals, the momentum really shifted.”

Nunez scored again with a great shot off a roll back over the stick of Rebels goalie Ian Colmorgan (16 saves) to knot the score at two with 13.4 seconds left in the first quarter. In the second quarter Sasso gave the Patriots the lead for good with an unassisted strike at 7:34, then scored again on an extra-man opportunity off a feed from Nunez at 4:56. Lach closed the half with a goal at 1:05, taking a pass from Ferdinandi to give the Patriots a 5-2 advantage.

The lead ballooned to 7-2 after the third quarter as Ferdinandi set up Lach again for a goal at 7:39 and Kevin Patten struck with four seconds left. All the while Freehold Township’s defense of O’Brien, Colin Bitsko, Ty Sebor and Mike DeBaere were frustrating Howell’s attack. Along with the middies they limited the Rebels in transition and their set defense was perfect. A big key was matching Howell’s physicality, especially against Buannic.

“We knew they would come at us hard and we had to go right back at them,” Ferrando said. “They have big No. 50 Buannic and we knew he was going to try to back us down, and even if we got a couple penalties defending him we were going to push, and push and push until someone broke, and we didn’t break.”

Buannic entered the game with 26 goals and 30 assists, while Sherman came in with 38 goals.

“Buannic scared us the most,” Ferrando said. “From last year to this year he has gotten unbelievably better. He can shoot from anywhere and feed from anywhere, and we had to stay on him and not let him have any space at all. Mike O’Brien had a great game defensively against him. When he got the ball we had to be on his hip and the defense did a good job of that.”

An area where Howell also excels is in transition. Colmorgan and the Rebels’ defenseman are very good at getting quick clears before the opposition can find its marks in the midfield.

“We knew from watching film we had to shut down their transition game and stay in the triangle when they were on a fast break,” Schroepfer said.

“We were coached in practice that once they made a save to sprint back on defense,” said Sasso, who had a game-high 10 ground balls. “The attackmen rode the middies and the middies dropped back to defense. They can move the ball real quick and their attackmen are the strongest part of their team. We knew if we stopped them on the fast break our settled defense would shut them down. I think our three down-low defenseman are the best in the league and they really stepped up today.”

Compounding Howell’s problems was the fact the Rebels took 12 penalties, which not only resulted on a dozen man-up opportunities for Freehold Township but also halted any momentum they hoped to build. Another area where Howell is used to dominating is in the face-off circle with senior Zack Ornstein, who came in winning 86 percent of draws. Sasso is arguably the best in the Shore, however, and the two battled to a 50/50 split. Sasso’s presence prohibited Howell from winning draw after draw and going on a run, as it did in its win over CBA.

Freehold Township finished off the victory with two more goals in the fourth quarter as Ferdinandi scored and then set up Nunez. The Patriots kept their foot on the gas pedal, too, holding Howell to zero shots until late in the quarter.

After an overtime win over Shore Regional on April 13 the Patriots admitted they were still searching for consistency. A turning point came in a 10-4 win over Red Bank Catholic, and since then Freehold Township has won four of five game with the only loss coming to top-ranked and undefeated Southern Regional. The Patriots have built themselves around hustle, and they have been superb in that area lately. And with the Shore Conference Tournament right around the corner, they’ve found their groove at the perfect time.

“It’s definitely a marathon and we’re coming together at the right time,” Sasso said. “We believe we can hang with any team in the Shore. We’re going to keep rising to the top.”



No. 6 Freehold Township 9, No. 3 Howell 2

Freehold Township (10-4, 4-1) 2 3 2 2 — 9

Howell (10-2, 5-1)                    2 0 0 0 — 0

GOALS - FT: Brandon Nunez 3, Billy Sasso 2, Matt Lach 2, Mike Ferdinandi, Kevin Patten; H: Nic Rossi, Mark Buannic.

ASSISTS - FT: Mike Ferdinandi 3, Brandon Nunez 1.

SAVES - FT: Matt Schroepfer 9; H: Ian Colmorgan 16.

SHOTS - Freehold Township, 41-20.