WEST LONG BRANCH - The first time the Shore Conference Tournament Boys Soccer championship game made it to the 100 minute mark without a winner, Freehold Township shared the championship with Jackson Memorial 32 years ago.

On Wednesday night at Shore Regional High School, the SCT title game was decided on penalty kicks for the first time ever and Freehold Township was once again involved.

This time however, the championship trophy is all theirs.

Photo by Matt Manley
Photo by Matt Manley

Junior goalkeeper John Wilhelm saved a penalty kick in the second half, then saved two during the shootout round to lift the fourth-seeded Patriots to a thrilling 4-3 win over No. 15 Manasquan on penalties after a wild, 2-2 draw through 100 minutes on play.

"Just to see them fight back the way they did tonight, I know that their determination and heart are second-to-none," Freehold Township fourth-year coach Josh Mehl said. "This is a special team I have. I knew that if they bought in 100 percent that we could be here tonight doing this."

"It’s hard to explain it because of how close-knit we are," Wilhelm said. "This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something special with your boys and your family. I’m so happy to get to experience this with them."

Wilhelm saved Manasquan's fourth and fifth attempts to turn the tide of the shootout after Manasquan goalkeeper Joe Weinstein stopped Freehold Township's second attempt.

"I am already pretty confident on PK’s based on my experience," Wilhelm said. "These boys were behind me the whole way and I just can’t be thankful enough for them because PK’s aren’t easy. It definitely helps having your team behind you."

With the championship on the line, junior Josh Leonetti stepped to the spot and ripped a shot to the left side of the goal to clinch Freehold Township's fourth ever SCT championship and first since 2014.

Freehold Township entered the shootout round with an advantage thanks to a scouting report Wilhelm had of Manasquan's shooters following the Warriors' win over Christian Brothers Academy in Saturday's semifinal round. Wilhelm narrowly missed saving conversions by seniors Drew Greenblatt and Chris Pierro before delivering a save on junior Simon Cardenas, who made the winning conversion against CBA.

"We were in trouble," junior Zach Orrico said. "We were down one in PK’s and we just had to trust John to come through. They had multiple PK shootouts so we kind of knew where they were going to go with it. John just made a bunch of great saves and we had to trust ourselves to hit our spots and win the game."

On the last attempt, however, he had to stop senior Rich Maloney, who did not shoot against CBA. Maloney hit a shot to the right side of the goal and Wilhelm extended for the save to set the stage for Leonetti.

"The semis (vs. CBA) went late so we were able to see what they had," Wilhelm said. "It was good for us on their first four but on their fifth shooter, we had no clue. Big thanks to the coaching staff for telling me which way their guys liked to go. That helped but our guys still had to make theirs and they came up huge."

Freehold Township junior Josh Leonetti celebrates his winning penalty kick. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Freehold Township junior Josh Leonetti celebrates his winning penalty kick. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

With Freehold Township's top offensive players - senior Bennett Messinger, junior Adam Havens, Orrico and senior Evan Savino - preceding him, Leonetti confidently took the winning shot after confidently asking for it before Wednesday's game.

"Josh came up (at practice on Tuesday) and said, ‘I want to go last because I know I’m going to make it.’" Mehl said. "I said, ‘If you are that confident, then I’m that confident in you.’ He's got a laser so I knew even if Weinstein guessed right, he was going to have a hard time stopping it."

The SCT's first ever penalty-kick round followed what was surely one of the most action-packed, nail-biting championship games in the 36-year history of the conference tournament.

Orrico was the co-star with Wilhelm, scoring both of Freehold Township's goals, including the game-tying penalty kick in the 74th minute. Sophomore Josh Hocheiser played the ball into the 18-yard box and on its way in, it hit the hand of Johnson to set up Orrico's penalty kick.

"You just have to trust yourself, pick your spot and hope the goalie doesn’t get to it before you do," Orrico said.

The equalizer came after two unanswered, second-half goals by Manasquan, both of which came on shots from outside the 18-yard box. One minute after Orrico hit the crossbar on a 25-yard free kick, Greenblatt slipped a one-hop shot to the far right corner on a free kick from 20 yards out to tie the game, 1-1, in the 51st minute.

Manasquan had a chance to take the lead in the 58th when Greenblatt was taken down just inside the perimeter of the 18-yard box. Johnson took the penalty kick and shot it on frame, but Wilhelm pounced on it with a diving save to his left.

"We knew where (Johnson) was going to go because of the PK’s on Saturday," Wilhelm said. "I just committed and was able to make the save. It was a big confidence booster for me and the team."

Eventually, Manasquan finished off a rousing go-ahead goal on another picturesque strike by senior outside back Tyler Guagenty. After burying a 28-yard laser for the first goal in Saturday's win over CBA, Guagenty delivered a slicing volley from 20 yards out that glanced off the outstretched hand of Wilhelm in the 67th minute.

The Warriors comeback came after a dominant first half by Freehold Township, which outshot Manasquan, 5-1, and broke through on a goal by Orrico in the 38th minute off a through-ball from Savino.

"(Manasquan's) Tom (McGill) is a great coach and I think the best thing that he does is make in-game adjustments," Mehl said. "I knew right away that they were going to make an adjustment and I want to give my guys credit because at the end of the game, we made an adjustment to change our formation and get more attacking to eventually get the PK."

Messinger and Savino dominated the midfield for Freehold Township in the first half, which has been the norm during the past four years. The two four-year starters have won 51 games during their careers and both calmly buried their kicks in the shootout.

"I tell Evan all the time that he is my favorite kind of player because he is a throwback," Mehl said. "He is just an animal whose motor is unparalleled."

"Bennett is just a man among boys at times. He played 100 minutes and to have the fortitude to step up and take the first one and not even flinch – he is a warrior. He is the guy who stepped up and said ‘I want to take the first one.’ I think Bennett Messinger and Zach Orrico are the best players in the Shore Conference and I think they showed it tonight."

Manasquan came out a more dangerous team after halftime and won the shot battle, 13-11, but needed Weinstein to come up with big saves on multiple occasions to keep the Patriots from winning the game prior to penalties.

In the eighth minute of overtime, Orrico turned the corner on the right side and centered a cross in the air that found the head of senior Connor Finn. The shot was on frame, but Weinstein made a diving catch to save it.

Less than a minute later, Johnson nearly won the game for Manasquan with 20-yard, left-footed rocket that clanged squarely off the far left post.

Orrico tested Weinstein again in the 17th minute of overtime when he collected a slip from Messinger with only Weinstein between him and a golden goal and a championship hat trick. Orrico flipped a shot toward Weinstein's left shoulder and the senior keeper got a hand on it to direct it away from the goal for a close-range save.

"I probably should have hit it low," Orrico said. "I tried to get it to the back post and he just made a great save. Weinstein was great tonight."

Weinstein saved five shots in 100 minutes of play while Wilhelm was up to the challenge with four of his own.

"Of all the people I feel happy for, I feel happiest for (Wilhelm)," Mehl said. "Manasquan gets all the credit in the world for scoring two beautiful goals and (Wilhelm) saved a PK in regulation which is probably going to get lost in the story a little bit. The kid is just a phenomenal shot-stopper so I really wasn’t surprised by him at all."

Manasquan came within minutes and several opportunities of its first ever Shore Conference Tournament championship in its first ever trip to the final. The Warriors needed to go 2-0-1 in its final three games prior to the tournament just to qualify and made a memorable, four-game run to the championship game.

After beating Toms River North and No. 2 Marlboro to reach the quarterfinals, Manasquan played in three straight penalty-kick rounds. The Warriors survived No. 7 Southern and No. 6 CBA before falling Saturday in its third shootout round.

Freehold Township, meanwhile, had not played to a draw this season prior to Wednesday but did need overtime to beat No. 8 Colts Neck in Wednesday's semifinal round.

"To watch these guys celebrate on the field these last two games has been my greatest joy as a coach," Mehl said.

The Patriots opened the season 2-0 and were 4-4 following a road loss to Rumson-Fair Haven before catching fire. Freehold Township has now gone 9-1-1 over its last 11 matches and in addition to winning the program's fourth SCT title, it can win its first outright Class A North title since 2008 if the Patriots can beat Middletown South on Friday at home.

"Every team has bumps in the road and I’m glad we were able to overcome them and now we’re here holding up that trophy," Wilhelm said. "Props to the boys because I’m not the one running around for 80 minutes and another 20 in overtime. I just do what I can to help whenever I can."

Box Score

Freehold Twp. 2, Manasquan 2 (Freehold Twp. wins on penalties, 4-3)

Manasquan (8-5-4)020023
Freehold Twp. (13-5-1)110024

Goals (Assists): (M) Drew Greenblatt (DK) 51', Tyler Guagenty 67'; (FT) Zach Orrico (Evan Savino) 38', Zach Orrico (PK) 74'
Shots: Manasquan, 13-11
Saves: (M) Joe Weinstein 5; (FT) John Wilhelm 4
Penalty Kicks: (M) Drew Greenblatt, Tommy Johnson, Chris Pierro; (FT) Bennett Messinger, Zach Orrico, Evan Savino, Josh Leonetti


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