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FREEHOLD TWP. -- When Jack Goldsmith was called upon to come off the bench cold to play goalkeeper during a shootout in the 2021 NJSIAA Group IV semifinals, his performance not only helped Freehold Township reach the Group IV final for the first time in three-and-a-half decades; it also sent a message.

That message? Championship expectations at Freehold Township run deeper than the starting lineup.

One year later, Goldsmith one of eight starters who moved up from the bench or sub-varsity levels on a team led by a first-year head coach. Although the faces are new, the goal remained the same and on Saturday afternoon on its home field, Freehold Township reached that goal.

Photo: Matt Manley
Photo: Matt Manley
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Senior Jake Visco scored the game's lone goal while Goldsmith and his defense staved off some significant pressure in the second half as the Patriots -- seeded No. 3 in the section -- topped No. 4 Monroe, 1-0, to capture their second straight Central Jersey Group IV championship.

With Saturday's win, Freehold Township has secured 1-0 wins at home in each of the past two Central Jersey Group IV championship games, but the similarities don't go much further than that. Seniors Tim Bertscha, Noah Jones and Kevin Kuriakose are the lone returning starters from 2021, with Goldsmith and fellow senior Aidan Englander both making noteworthy contributions to last year's run as well.

"It's next man up," Goldsmith said. "We knew the talent we had on the bench last year. Yeah, we had guys like (2022 graduates) Herman Colbert and Josh Hocheiser and they were the guys, but everyone wants to play and everyone is always ready to play and everyone is good enough to be on the field."

"It's a different group of guys, but it's the same feeling: we just want to keep winning," Jones said. "We're boosting our confidence with every game and our goal is to get to the same spot we did last year and, hopefully, finish with a win."

The rest of the players playing key roles this season are doing so for the first time and Visco is a prime example of the lift the Patriots have gotten from their new crop of contributors. Although he came off the bench for a large portion of the season, Visco has been the team's most dependable scorer during the state tournament, with three goals in the last two games heading into Saturday.

"I think it's just knowing that these games are win-or-go-home and if we don't score goals, our season could be over," Visco said of his scoring tear. "It's hard to explain, but something just clicked and I think it has something to do with that urgency."

Visco made it four goals in three games with his shot in the 33rd minute. Visco collected the ball at the top of the 18-yard box and ripped a low shot that skipped twice, took an unpredictable bounce off the grass and shot over the reach of diving Monroe goalkeeper Justin Graham and into the goal.

"I really just try to shoot it and try to keep it on goal if I can," Visco said. "I don't think too much about keeping it on the ground or trying to use the field. I think, playing on this field, that's why you just try to get a shot off; you never know what can happen."

"I always try to get three-to-five of those kind of shots in warm-ups, just so I can read and react to the bounces," Goldsmith said, empathizing with his counterpart. "That's the Freehold Township bounce. It definitely sucks, but it worked in our favor today."

Fifteen minutes prior to Visco's goal, senior Tyler Santos had a goal wiped away due to an offside call.

"We all celebrated like it was a goal, so for those couple seconds, we felt that feeling that we scored," Visco said. "It's a letdown when you see it doesn't count, but we knew we couldn't stay down. We just stayed on the attack and tried to get another one so we could get that feeling again."

Santos was the most consistently dangerous Freehold Township player in the game, with the junior getting off three other threatening shots during the first 50 minutes on top of the negated goal. Santos and juniors Victor Torres and Alessandro Principato have been reliable sources of offense throughout the season and particularly during the state tournament.

For the final 30 minutes of the second half, however, Freehold Township withstood a barrage of long passes over the top, several of which resulted in dangerous opportunities for Monroe. Goldsmith tried to clear the ball with his right foot in the 56th and missed when the ball took a bad hop. The goal was open, but the ball veered off to the left.

"We just had to buckle down and defend," first-year Patriots coach Mike Tepedino said. "This is our tenth shutout now and defensively, they (Monroe) are really strong. Our goal is to get a clean sheet. If the other team doesn't score, they are not going to win -- not in regular time, anyway. So that's what we focus on and that's what we take a lot of pride in."

In the 74th, senior Nate Lipton slipped behind the Patriots back line for a one-on-one opportunity vs. Goldsmith. He tapped a shot toward the right side of the goal, but Goldsmith reacted with a low dive to his left for the save.

"They (Monroe) had the wind in the second half, so we were ready for the balls over the top," Goldsmith said. "The defense did a great job taking that away, so the opportunities don't come a lot, but the one or two saves I have to make, I want to be ready."

"He inspires so much confidence," Tepedino said of Goldsmith. "He is a level-headed, ridiculous athlete, where he is almost always going to do something to pick us up."

While the surface of Freehold Township's natural-grass field caused some challenges for the home team at a few points on Saturday, the Patriots found it to their liking on the whole.

"We're used to it because we play on it and practice on it all the time," Jones said. "It's just a mentality. Teams come in scared or worried about the field and we just know how to adapt to it. We think about how to play on it, but we don't let it bother us."

This season has been a year of streaks for Freehold Township, which followed up an opening-day loss at Middletown South with an eight-game winning streak. The Patriots then went 2-5 over their next seven games, which included a home loss to Middletown North in the Shore Conference Tournament.

"It was all senior leadership," Tepedino said. "It's Kevin, it's Noah, it's Timmy, it's Jack. They are the guys who were talking to everybody and telling them, 'Hey, we don't want our season to end like this.'"

That rough patch led right into the state tournament and the Patriots battled adversity right from the jump against No. 15 West Windsor-Plainsboro South. Freehold Township squandered a 2-0 lead and faced golden goal in overtime, but Bertscha delivered a golden goal to help his team avoid the first-round upset.

Since pulling out that first-round win, Freehold Township has outscored its next three opponents by a margin of 7-0.

For the first time this postseason, Freehold Township will head out on the road, with South Jersey Group IV champion Cherokee awaiting for a Wednesday showdown in South Jersey. Now that this Freehold Township team has matched last year's team in winning a sectional title, it would like to also reach the Group IV final.

The 2021 season ended with Kearny overwhelming the Patriots, 6-2, in the Group IV championship, but this year's team would like another chance at the last game of the season.

"It feels great, especially doing it with these guys," Goldsmith said. "The winning is great, but our thing is we just want as much time together as possible. November 13th is the last day of the season, so that's the day we want to be playing."

 

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