FREEHOLD TWP. - The path toward the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals has been full of twists and turns for the Freehold Township boys soccer team and the Patriots haven't just learned to expect the unexpected - they have learned to embrace it.

On a Wednesday afternoon in which rain and wind steadily became more of a factor throughout the fourth and final Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinal pitting the fourth-seeded Patriots against visiting No. 5 Wall, Freehold Township found a pair of goals on unfamiliar plays and absorbed Wall's best counter-punch.

Junior Zach Orrico scored the game's first goal and assisted another by classmate Joe Lardaro within a span of under five minutes late in the second half and the Patriots hung on to clip the Crimson Knights, 2-1, to reach the SCT semifinals for the third time in six years.

Freehold Township junior Zach Orrico (3) celebrates with classmate Joe Lardaro after Lardaro's go-ahead goal in the first half. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Freehold Township junior Zach Orrico (3) celebrates with classmate Joe Lardaro after Lardaro's go-ahead goal in the first half. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"We were 4-4 after losing to Rumson and we knew we had a tough next game against Marlboro," Orrico said of his team, which won six straight since that 4-4 start before losing to Christian Brothers Academy last week. "We knew we had to keep fighting and just try to get into the tournaments and that's just been our mentality ever since. Whatever the situation, we're going to play hard and play together."

The rain was nearly undetectable for the first 30 minutes before it started to pick up and the action around both goals followed. It began with a corner kick for Freehold Township in the 34th minute and juniors Adam Havens and Shane O'Malley concocted a plan that started with Havens playing the corner short to his classmate.

The move surprised Orrico, who was setting up for a tussle in the box, but the junior saw O'Malley work the ball toward the touch line and made his run. O'Malley slid the ball across and Orrico beat the Wall defense to the ball for a one-timed score to break the deadlock.

"I had no idea what they were doing over there because that's not something we planned or even try all that much," Orrico said. "But I saw (O'Malley) beat his man along the line so I just made the run toward the near post and he put the ball right there for me."

It took Wall 57 seconds to respond, with junior Jake Pepe heading in a cross from junior Philip Lyons right at the mouth of the goal. Horowitz recovered a loose ball on the left side after Freehold Township goalkeeper John Wilhelm came off his line and knocked it in the air to the middle of the goal, where Pepe pounded it home for the equalizer.

For a team with a 12-5 record, Freehold Township has had a tendency to give up leads, which it did in three of its five losses and again in Saturday's round-of-16 win over Rumson. The Patriots led that one 2-0 before Rumson - playing a man down for 65 minutes - rallied to tie the game at 2-2 before Freehold Township escaped with a 3-2 win.

With that in mind, the Patriots had a quick answer for Wall as well. In the 38th minute, Orrico tracked down a throw-in into the box, turned inside and slid the ball to the front of the goal, where Lardaro boxed out a defender and poked it in for the game-winner.

The goal was Lardaro's second of the year and first since opening night, when the junior defender scored in Freehold Township's 5-4 loss to Toms River North.

"It was a lot like the first one (of Wednesday's game)," Lardaro said. "Zach got the ball and I knew he was going to beat his man so I tried to get in position and make myself available to him."

Wall's best chance to tie the game came in the 45th minute, when a header by senior Michael Beer drilled the top right corner of the crossbar and the post. Senior Tagg Ancrum also got a chance at a 28-yard direct kick in the 75th but hooked it just wide of the near right post.

"I thought we were a little more dangerous than they were throughout the game," Orrico said. "We were moving the ball a little quicker, slipping it past defenders and into open space. They got some good chances, they definitely battled and we had to defend for a lot of the second half."

"Once we got to halftime with the lead, we knew we had to lock it down defensively," Lardaro said. "We have given up some goals and we gave one up today but when the defense gets focused on stopping the other team from scoring, we know we are tough to beat."

Pepe's goal gave him the team lead for the season with eight and Freehold Township responded by keeping him off the board in the second half. The Crimson Knights outshot the Patriots, 5-1, after halftime, but the Patriots defense did not give Pepe any of them.

"We just had to keep him in front of us," Orrico said. "He is pretty quick and strong so he can turn on you pretty quick if you're not ready. I thought our defenders did a good job, especially in the second half, making sure he couldn't turn."

Freehold Township is now the top seed remaining in what has been a Shore Conference Tournment littered with upsets. The Patriots will play No. 8 Colts Neck in the second of the two semifinal matches at Shore Regional High School on Saturday, with No. 6 Christian Brothers Academy taking on No. 15 Manasquan in the first one.

"At this point in the tournament, everybody is a good team," Orrico said. "It doesn't matter what seed you are or who you beat during the season. Colts Neck is a tough team. We scrimmaged them, but that was a long time ago. We know they'll come in ready and we're going to come ready too."

Video of Wall goal courtesy of Wall High School Boys Soccer


Box Score

Freehold Twp. 2, Wall 1

Wall (13-3)101
Freehold Twp. (12-5)202

Goals (Assists): (W) Jake Pepe (Kyle Horowitz) 35'; (FT) Zach Orrico (Shane O'Malley) 34', Joe Lardaro (Zach Orrico) 38'
Shots: Freehold Twp., 9-7
Saves: (W) Sebastian Campanile 2; (FT) John Wilhelm 2

More From Shore Sports Network