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MIDDLETOWN — With victory just a goal away in the biggest game in the history of Freehold Township’s lacrosse program, there was no question who was going to lead the Patriots’ final charge.

Senior midfielder Billy Sasso took the ball off a restart and dodged a pair of Christian Brothers Academy defenders before ripping a shot that found the back of the net with 16.5 seconds left in overtime, setting off a jubilant celebration as the sixth-seeded Patriots clipped the third-seeded Colts, 9-8 in overtime, in the quarterfinals of the Shore Conference Tournament on Thursday afternoon.

Sasso finished with a game-high five goals, also scoring the game-tying goal with 2:45 left in regulation, to send the Patriots to their first SCT semifinal in program history.

“This is the best feeling I’ve had in sports in my whole life,” Sasso said. “I’m loving it right now.”

“It was unbelievable,” said Freehold Township head coach Mike Ferrando. “That last sequence wasn’t a play we called, Billy just pulled it out. He said in the huddle he wanted the ball and (offensive coordinator Ryan Eichner) said let him do it. I don’t think they slid to him, but even if they did he was running through it. He was determined to score that last goal and he did.”

Freehold Township senior midfielder Billy Sasso scored five goals, including the game-tying and game-winning goals, picked up 13 ground balls and went 11-for-19 in face-offs in the Patriots' 9-8 overtime win over CBA. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

Sasso was a beast once again in a mammoth game for Freehold Township. His five goals included both the game-tying and game-winning strikes, and he also assisted on Chris Novella’s extra-man opportunity goal early in the fourth quarter to capitalize on the game’s only penalty. He’s also the best face-off man in the Shore Conference, and he went 11-for-19 on draws while picking up 13 ground balls. His performance on Thursday thrust him into the running for conference player of the year.

Not to be outdone was junior goalie Matt Schroepfer, who was sensational in making 18 saves. He came up with two huge stops late in the fourth quarter and made another monumental save in overtime after a giveaway by Freehold Township on an errant pass gave CBA possession with 1:59 left. He made 11 saves in the second half.

“He was ridiculous today and it was awesome watching him,” said defensive midfielder Jake Dudics. “Every time he made a save it was just excitement throughout the defense.”

“I just shut off my mind and said make this save at all costs,” Schroepfer said.

Freehold Township’s second win ever over CBA (first since 2010) ran its winning streak to seven games and put the Patriots into the SCT semifinals for the first time. They will take on second-seeded and four-time defending champion Rumson-Fair Haven on Saturday morning at Toms River East.

Mike Ferdinandi chipped in with two goals and one assist, Josh Nastarowicz finished with two assists and Brandon Nunez and Novella also scored goals for Freehold Township (13-4). Freshman attackman Mike Carroll led CBA (11-4) with a hat trick and junior attackman Shay Walczak had a goal with three assists. The Colts also got goals from Nick Casner, John Spadavecchia, Shane McGuiness and Nick Gazzillo. Conor Cunningham went 8-for-19 on draws, including 4-for-4 in the third quarter and 7-for-10 in the second half, and picked up seven ground balls. Evan Bynoe made eight saves including five in the first quarter.

Freehold Township’s defense, led by senior Mike O’Brien, has been one of the better units in the Shore Conference all season, but the group knew they had to be at their absolute best against a deep CBA offense. Casner, a sophomore attackman, steers the ship for the Colts and was their main focus to start, but the Patriots knew they were going to need several players to contribute on the defensive end.

In addition to the usual strong play from defensemen Ty Sebor, Collin Bitsko and O’Brien, along with long-stick midfielder Mike DeBaere, the Patriots used clutch games from Shawn Poole, Matt Pine and Dudics. Poole and Dudics helped hold Casner, who had five goals and two assists in CBA’s 11-4 regular-season win over the Patriots on April 11, to only one first-quarter goal.

Freehold Township goalie Matt Schroepfer made 18 saves in the Patriots' 9-8 win over CBA. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

“Our defensive middies have been playing very well lately,” Ferrando said. “We knew Casner was the guy who would beat us, and we said we had to take him out of the game and make the other guys beat us.”

“(Defensive coordinator Steve Horsch) put a lot of time in with what we were going to do against them,” Dudics said. “The defensive scheme was just to lock him off and play around that.”

“Obviously Casner is a big part of their offense and he’ll dodge and dump to the crease or up top, and we knew we had to shut him off,” Schroepfer said. “In the second quarter they started scoring without him and we figured maybe we can leave him open a bit. We started to let him do his thing and try to dump it to the crease, and since we knew that’s what they were going to do we just stayed locked there and made them force it and fight for the ground balls.”

Walczak opened the scoring at 9:27 of the first quarter with an unassisted goal before Freehold Township answered 37 seconds later on a goal by Ferdinandi. Walczak then set up Casner to make it 2-1 at 5:26, but Freehold Township once against answered quickly when Sasso scored unassisted off the ensuing face-off win.

Spadavecchia put CBA in front 3-2 with an unassisted strike at 9:57 of the second quarter. Freehold Township responded with the next two goals, as Nastarowicz fed Nunez for a goal at 7:13 and Sasso took a pass from Ferdinandi and scored his second of the game with 1:19 left until halftime. Walczak continued his strong first half by assisting on Carroll’s tying goal with 26.4 seconds left., but Freehold Township refused to give in, and Sasso completed the hat trick with 16.1 seconds left to put the Patriots up 5-4 at halftime.

They pushed their lead to 6-4 early in the third quarter when Nastarowicz made a great pass from behind the net to Ferdinandi, who scored while being checked from behind and falling down. The two-goal lead for Freehold Township was the largest for either team, and with Sasso in the face-off circle the Patriots had a chance to pull away. But Cunningham came up huge for CBA in winning all four face-offs in the third quarter to help the Colts tie the score heading to the fourth quarter. Carroll scored unassisted at 5:48 and Walczak set up McGuiness for the equalizer at 4:22.

After dominating the face-off circle in the first half, Sasso had hit a bit of a skid. He knew he had to find a way to break it quickly.

“When you get in a slump like that it’s hard to get out of it, especially when you’re also playing offense and defense, and get back in the swing of things,” Sasso said. “It was tough losing face-offs and watching them tie it up and then go up by one, but I got back in the groove."

There’s no denying Sasso was at his best when his team needed him most. He won the opening face-off of the fourth quarter, and that led to possession and the Patriots drawing the only penalty of the game. They made the most of the EMO when Novella, a freshman, finished off a great passing play to give the Patriots a 7-6 lead.

“We put in that wheel play and usually that’s my shot on the back side,” Sasso said. “But I saw the guy rolling over and Novella was wide open. It looked pretty.”

Cunningham would win the next two draws to help CBA pull in front. Carroll’s third goal of the game tied the score 7-7 at 5:10, and under a minute later Gazzillo put the Colts in front 8-7 with an unassisted tally.

From there Sasso and Schroepfer made clutch plays to deliver the Patriots their biggest win yet. Kevin Patten fed Sasso for a blast from high in the box that beat Bynoe and tied the score at eight with 2:45 left in regulation. Schroepfer then made two huge saves in the final 90 seconds to send the game into overtime.

In the extra session Schroepfer made one last save to get the ball back to the offense, and Sasso ended it with a bullish individual effort.

“We knew it was going through Sasso,” Ferrando said. “I wasn’t quite sure what he was going for, but we knew something good was happening. When the ball is in his hands, good things always happen.”

Now the Patriots get to take their shot at four-time defending SCT champion Rumson, which also enters the semifinals on a seven-game winning streak after an 18-4 wipeout of 10th-seeded Barnegat in the quarterfinals. It’s certainly another massive challenge for the Patriots, but this group couldn’t possibly be playing with more confidence right now.

“Rumson is a great program that has been on a tear the last few years, but we’ll keep doing what we do, and that’s focus on us,” Ferrando said. “We’ll get better one more day (Friday) and bring our best on Saturday.”

“We’re playing as a family and that really goes a long way,” Sasso said. “We definitely think we can play with anybody. That’s a great team (CBA) and beating them is just unbelievable. It’s a great step for us and only builds our confidence more.”

 

BOX SCORE

Shore Conference Tournament

Quarterfinals

6-Freehold Township 9, 3-CBA 8 (OT)

Freehold Township (13-4) 2 3 1 2 1 — 9

Christian Brothers (11-4)   2 2 2 2 0 — 8

GOALS — FT: Billy Sasso 5, Mike Ferdinandi 2, Brandon Nunez, Chris Novella; CBA: Mike Carroll 3, Shay Walczak, Nick Casner, John Spadavecchia, Shane McGuiness, Nick Gazzillo.

ASSISTS — FT: Mike Ferdinandi 2, Josh Nastarowicz 2, Billy Sasso, Kevin Patten; CBA: Shay Walczak 3.

SAVES — FT: Matt Schroepfer 18; CBA: Evan Bynoe 8.

SHOTS: CBA, 35-26.

 

Bob Badders can be reached at badders@allshoremedia.com