Boys Soccer SCT Bracket

NEPTUNE – The group of seniors and juniors on the Freehold Township boys soccer team expected to win at least one championship with their experienced roster this season. According to coach Todd Briggs, the Patriots are on the cusp of one of those championships because they failed to win the first one.

Falling out of the Shore Conference Class A North race with more than a week left in the regular season forced Briggs and his team to address the issues that led to the shortcoming and the result is one that has made the initial struggle worth it.

Senior Kyle Czajkowski’s sixth-minute goal off a cross from junior Mike Maltese was the only goal No. 11 seed Freehold Township would need in a 1-0 win in Thursday’s Shore Conference Tournament semifinal against No. 2 seed Manalapan thanks to another pristine performance by the defense and goalkeeper Brian Shushkovsky. The Patriots will go for their first SCT title since 2008 Saturday against No. 4 Wall at Memorial Athletic Complex.

Freehold Township's Kyle Czajkowski battles for the ball against Manalapan's Eric Wilkinson (right) and Mike McNicholas (left). (Photo by Matt Manley)

“When I envisioned this team before the season, I envisioned a team that was just going to overwhelm teams with speed and basically pound the goal until it went into the net,” Briggs said. “Unfortunately, for as talented of a team that we are, that’s just not what these guys do best and it took some tough losses and ultimately losing out on the A North title to figure that out.

“Once we were out of the A North race, we had a chance to address our issues and ultimately, I had to make a change to our formation to fit our team. Starting with the Howell game (on Oct. 17) we went to a flat back with one deep center midfielder, which was something that our guys were a lot more comfortable playing, and from there, everything pretty much fell into place. We haven’t given up a goal since.”

The shutout was the fifth straight for Shushkovsky and the Patriots, four of which have come during the SCT run. Freehold Township has scored only three goals in the tournament with no more than one goal in any game, but the new-look formation and the defense that has followed has made those goals count.

“Everything has worked together for us, and a lot of it starts with Shush in goal,” Czajkowski said. “Knowing he’s there allows us to take risks, to apply pressure without worrying if we’re going to give up an easy goal because we know he is a guy who can make tough saves.”

Manalapan had been shut out just once all year, which also came against Freehold Township in a scoreless tie on Oct. 10. The Braves outshot the Patriots, 6-5, but Freehold Township bottled up senior forward and leading scorer Ryan Hammer. The last time Hammer played on Memorial Field in Neptune, he scored two goals in the 2013 SCT final against Rumson-Fair Haven, a 2-1 Manalapan win.

“We’re a defensive team first and foremost, and pretty much every player on the team – even the forwards – has a defensive mindset,”Czajkowski said. “So when you see us shutting teams out, yeah, the guys in the back have been awesome, but it’s all 11 guys committing to defense that makes it happen.”

After the game’s lone goal, Manalapan came close to tying the game twice. The first chance came right away, as senior Rob Pratka hit the crossbar in the ninth minute from 30 yards out. The Braves again came close to tying the score when junior Ayush Mittal got behind the defense, only to have his shot from the right side saved by Shushkovsky. The stop was the first – and finer – of two saves in the game for the Rutgers University recruit.

“High school soccer has changed a lot since me and a lot of my peers were playing,” Briggs said. “When I was in school, everyone played with a stopper and a deep sweeper who would be back on the keeper and kick the ball forward. Now, with the rise of the academies, players are exposed to different styles and they are much more comfortable playing flat in the back. Shush has played on high-level club teams his whole life and he’s just more comfortable looking at that defense in front of him, and I really think it has allowed him to be himself and just play back there.”

The near misses by Manalapan made its lone defensive breakdown its downfall as the Braves looked to move within a win of repeating as SCT champion. The Patriots beat the Manalapan defense the same way they beat the Christian Brothers Academy defense in a round-of-16 win at the Academy. Maltese took the ball off a throw-in, dribbled toward the left corner and crossed the ball in the air for Czajkowski, who headed the ball from the back right post back to the near post for the goal.

“The twins (Kyle and twin brother Jason Czajkowski) can get up in the air, so we’re always trying to get the ball up the edge and get a cross into the box where they can go get a head on it,” Maltese said. “Today, we really wanted to take the game to them early and we came out attacking up the sideline and the first cross we got in the box, Kyle went up and made a play.”

Czajkowski also scored the goal against CBA on a header, which came from sophomore Sean O’Donnell on the right side of the field. Maltese also assisted Mike Staklinski’s goal in Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Marlboro with a corner kick.

“It’s really the simplest way to go get a goal, especially with the speed we have,” Briggs said. “We’re always telling our guys to make runs up the sideline, get the ball and send it in the box. That’s pretty much what I thought we’d be, and in these last few games, that part of the attack has been there.”

The last time Freehold Township won a championship, the Patriots went 0-2 against Manalapan during the 2008 regular season. This Patriots team, in addition to vanquishing the Braves on Thursday, survived third meetings with both Marlboro and CBA out of Class A North and beat a Colts Neck team that was in A North last year in a first-round penalty shootout. Wall will be the first team that Freehold Township has played in this tournament that it has not played in either a regular-season game or scrimmage this season.

“When things weren’t going our way, we never forgot what our goals were at the beginning of the year,” Kyle Czajkowski said. “We never forgot what we set out to do. Tournament time is a different season with a different intensity level, and that’s true in all sports. It gives any team a chance to right the ship and get hot at the right time, and even when we were 7-5, that was always our goal.”

 

Box Score

Freehold Twp. 1, Manalapan 0

1

2

F

Freehold Twp. (11-5-2)

1

0

1

Manalapan (12-3-3)

0

0

0

Goals (Assists): (FT) K. Czajkowski (Maltese) 6’
Shots: Manalapan, 6-5
Saves: (FT) Shushkovsky 2; (M) Terr 0, Cavanaugh 2