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FREEHOLD TWP. -- Junior goalkeeper Joe Goldsmith encapsulates this year's Freehold Township boys soccer team as it compares to Patriots teams of recent vintage and even against the other top-tier teams in the Shore Conference.

He wasn't the most likely of heroes in the Group IV semifinal against Toms River North, but when everything was on the line, he delivered.

Goldstein did not play during 100 scoreless minutes between the two sides, but came off the bench to save two kicked during the penalty shootout and senior Josh Hocheiser buried the winner to send Freehold Township to the Group IV final with a 7-6 win over Toms River North in the round of kicks.

Freehold Township's trip to Kean Saturday will mark its first appearance in the Group IV championship game since 1982, when the Patriots tied Kearny to share the group title that season. Just as it was 39 years ago, Kearny will be Freehold Township's opponent with the state title on the line.

"It sounds cliché because you hear this a lot with teams that go far, but it's true with this group: they just really love each other," said Freehold Township coach Josh Mehl, who made sure to point out to his team that he was six months old the last time Freehold Township reached a state final. "We have talent, we're athletic, we're deep and we have some guys who can finish, but I think what separates this group is how tight-knit they are on and off the field. When you have a group this close, it makes practicing so much better and when you get to the game, they are playing for each other for 80 minutes, or however long it takes."

Goldsmith opened the season as Freehold Township's third-string goalkeeper and moved up to No. 2 on the depth chart when starter Giancarlo Pantano suffered a broken bone in his hand on Oct. 25. Richard Lockard has filled in during the unbeaten run since that Shore Conference Tournament semifinal loss to Toms River North, but with the season on the line, Freehold Township coach Josh Mehl rolled the dice with his tallest, most athletic option.

"We talked about it before the tournament started and I decided if we got to penalties, we were going to go for it," Mehl said of going with Goldsmith in the round of penalty kicks. "Lockard has been awesome for us since Giancarlo broke his hand, but from working on penalty kicks in practice, we knew Joe gave us our best chance. He is a basketball player and just a great overall athlete."

Toms River North blinked first in the shootout, with Goldsmith saving Toms River North's third attempt to give the Patriots the upper hand. Senior J.T. Gold had a chance to end the shootout on Freehold Township's fifth attempt, but Toms River North senior goalkeeper Dawson Kaniuk made a clutch kick save to extend it to another round.

"We didn't have a scouting report on their shooters so I asked Joe before the shootout if he wanted my input on what I saw or did he just wanted to figure it out for himself," Mehl said. "He wanted to do it himself and his athleticism and instincts just took over. He made a huge save and then Dawson came back with an equally huge save when we had a chance to win it."

On the eighth round of kicks, Goldsmith came up big again with a diving save to his left. That set up Hocheiser, who opted for a Panenka penalty shot and dropped it into the left side of the goal to set of the celebration.

"I work on that Panenka shot in practice and I have been thinking of doing it in a game," said Hocheiser, who has been Freehold Township's top penalty-taker this season. "I made the first one and I thought the keeper would be guessing one way and I just went for it."

Tuesday marked the third meeting between Freehold Township and Toms River North this season, with the Mariners winning the Shore Conference Tournament semifinal showdown, 4-1, after the two teams tied, 0-0, in a regular-season match on Oct. 12 in Toms River.

After playing at Toms River North during the season and at Barnegat in the neutral-site SCT semifinals, Freehold Township got its shot at the Mariners on its home field and made the most of the opportunity.

The 100 minutes of soccer featured its share of ebbs and flows in both directions: Freehold Township dominated play for the first 25 minutes as the Mariners gathered their bearings on the uneven playing service. Toms River North got some chances before halftime and controlled play for the majority of the second half.

"It's always tough when you have a stretch where you give yourself chances and don't score," Mehl said. "On the one hand, you are encouraged that you are creating the chances, but when you watch enough high school soccer, you know a lot of times, those missed opportunities come back to bite you, especially against an opponent of that quality."

The visitors nearly pushed through a deciding goal in the 55th minute, when Freehold Township goalkeeper Richard Lockard saved a shot toward the upper-90 of the goal, followed by Toms River North dinging the right post less than a minute later.

Freehold Township had its close call with a minute left in regulation, when top scorer Herman Colbert broke loose on the left side of the 18-yard box. The senior had a clear line of vision on the goal and struck a shot with ill intentions, only to watch it said just wide of the far right post.

Each team threatened in the second overtime but neither did enough to settle the match in the run of play.

"They put a lot of pressure on us early in the second half and we had to just keep fighting our way out of it," Hocheiser said. "When Herm missed that shot, it actually settled us down going into the overtime knowing that we could get a chance like that."

After a long stretch of seasons staging the group semifinals at predetermined neutral sites around the state, the NJSIAA moved the games within the state semifinal round to the home field of one of the participating teams - the Central Jersey teams in the Central-vs.-South games and the North Section 2 teams in the North-1-vs.-North-2 games. Hosting privileges will shift to the South Jersey and North Section 2 teams next year as part of an annual rotation.

That meant that as the Central Jersey champion out of Group 4, Freehold Township was given the home game and the Patriots' homefield advantage is especially unique playing on a worn-out, uneven, natural surface that gives opposing teams who are used to playing on turf fits.

Toms River North needed time to adjust to the field, but played airtight defense in the process and throughout Tuesday's game. Still, coach Joe Mahon acknowledged that the poor conditions impacted the way his team had to play the game.

"Credit to Freehold Township," Mahon said. "They are well-coached, they work hard and they are tough on this field."

He also sounded off on the state and Freehold Township for allowing a state semifinal to be played on Freehold Township's high-school field.

"There is no way that should happen," said Mahon, who led Toms River North to a state semifinal two years ago and was an assistant coach on the 2009 Mariners team -- both of which lost by a single goal in the state semifinal round. "For a state semifinal to be played on that field, it's unfair to the kids on both teams. You want it to feel like a special event when you're in a game of that magnitude. That wasn't even soccer.

"That's just the state being lazy. It's easier for them to let one of the schools handle hosting, but how is that doing right by the kids? This game should have been played at Howell later in the day, just like their girls game."

Mahon was referencing the Central Jersey Group IV championship game on Friday, in which Freehold Township hosted Rancocas Valley on Howell High School's turf field and beat the Red Devils, 4-3, in overtime. That game was moved from Freehold Township to Howell because of the rain throughout the early part of the day on Friday.

"I'm just sad for our guys," said Mahon, whose team starts nine seniors. "I'm sad for myself and for the program too, because how often do you get a group like this? They deserved better. They have been such a special group of guys to coach over these last four years, especially these last three. I would have loved to see us play in that Group IV championship game against (Kearny) because I think it would have been really fun to watch. We would have gone after it and played with them. Unfortunately, we won't get that chance and it's unfortunate this group had to end their season in a game where they could barely play."

Over the past three seasons, Toms River North won South Jersey Group IV championships in both 2019 and 2021 and a modified sectional championship in 2020, which they won by beating Freehold Township and Southern Regional in the final two rounds to secure the title.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Joe and for the program they have there," Mehl said. "To win three straight sectional champions is an unbelievable accomplishment that shouldn't get overlooked. We played them all three years and they have been extremely tough. I felt like we were a little unlucky in a few of them, so I really felt good about our chances today. It's really hard to keep beating a good team and I thought my guys would adjust and respond to the challenge, which they did."

Freehold Township was 0-3-1 against the Mariners since the start of 2019 and while the Patriots still have not beaten Toms River North straight up, in that stretch, they have earned a pair of scoreless draws and boasted a 9-7 advantage in shots in Tuesday's game. Toms River North, meanwhile, held a 5-3 edge in shots on goal and 5-4 on corner kicks.

The Patriots have had the Shore Conference's most consistent program over the past 18 years, during which Freehold Township has finished with a winning record and qualified for both the Shore Conference and NJSIAA Tournaments in every season -- something no other Shore Conference program has done during that stretch of nearly two decades.

Still, despite being a consistent winner, the Patriots have not been to a Group IV championship game, twice losing in the Group IV semifinals -- once to Cherokee in 2011 and again to Washington Township in 2015.

This year's team appeared an unlikely candidate to take the next step toward a state title given the talent lost from the 2020 graduating class, in-season injuries and bouts with COVID-19 close contacts during the 2021 campaign. They have played almost the entire season without senior captain Christian Mojares and were without senior J.T. Gold for a large portion of the season before he returned on Oct. 25.

"We play in so many tough games during the against teams like CBA, Elizabeth, Toms River North. "Hocheiser said. "Those games definitely get us ready to play come tournament time. We're used to battling adversity so when the games get tougher, we are at our best."

Freehold Township also ended a drought of more than a decade for Shore Conference Group IV programs. The last team to represent the Shore Conference in the Group IV final was Toms River South in 2009, when the Indians knocked off Toms River North in overtime in the Group IV semifinal at Neptune, then topped Clifton at the College of New Jersey to win the group title.

"They are just happy to get to spend four more days together," Mehl said. "Obviously, we're going to play for a state championship, but just being around each other until the last day of the season makes this special. I couldn't be happier about it."


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