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TOMS RIVER - A lot has happened since the Toms River North and Freehold Township boys soccer teams opened the 2019 regular season with a highlight-packed match - both in their small world of soccer and in the world at large.

Both teams turned their seasons around and won championships in 2019 - Freehold Township the Shore Conference Tournament title and Toms River North the South Jersey Group IV championship - and came into 2020 as two of the Shore's best.

For nearly 50 minutes, it appeared Toms River North was the far superior team but the Mariners players who remember last year's meeting and knew their opponent as well as their coach, Joe Mahon, did knew the Patriots were not going down without a fight.

Freehold Township indeed fought but ultimately went down, as Toms River North - the No. 1 seed in the Central Jersey East Group IV South Tournament and No. 7 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 - held off the fourth-seeded and No. 5 ranked Patriots, 3-2.

"I knew it wasn't going to be easy," Mahon said. "When we were up 3-0, I was thinking there is no way this game is ending up 4-0. I was just trying to prepare the guys for the second-half rush."

Toms River North advances to Saturday's championship game and season finale, which the Mariners will host against second-seeded Southern at 11 a.m.

Toms River North stormed out to a 3-0 lead on Thursday with a trio of scores that came within 16 minutes of one another over the course of both halves.

Junior Mattia Assante assisted the first goal of the game and scored one of his own before halftime to help the Mariners get off to a fast start. Assante volleyed a free kick by senior Danny Moreno over Freehold Township's back line and junior Jake Nagle ran it down and finished the game's first goal in the 29th minute.

Less than three minutes later, Assante positioned himself on the receiving end of a cross from senior Ali Baish and knocked it in for a 2-0 Mariners lead in the 32nd. Baish also created the third Toms River North goal, with senior Parker Nickelsen one-timing Baish's low cross to the far left post into the goal for a 3-0 lead in the 45th.

Baish and Nickelsen continued to torment opposing backs, with Baish picking up his third assist in two tournament games and Nickelsen scoring for the fifth time in Toms River North's last five games - all of which have come against teams that won at least one state tournament game (Brick, Southern, Jackson Memorial and Freehold Township).

"Those forwards up there create so much space for me to get wide," Nagle said. "By doing that, all of the defenders are focused on them because you have Ali, Parker, A.J. (Emnace) up top - all lethal players. By seeing that, I took advantage, the defenders didn't see me and it was a great pass by Mattia."

Nagle also turned in a noteworthy effort, scoring a goal for the second straight game and putting in a workmanlike effort in the midfield while matching up with Freehold Township standout Zach Orrico - the 2019 Shore Sports Network Player of the Year.

"We thought about sitting off, winning those headers and getting the ball up to our forwards," Nagle said. "We did the same thing in the second half and it was evenly-matched, but we squeaked it out in the end with a little more defense."

"They are monsters in the back, so it's tough to get it over their back line," Mahon said. "He was in one-on-one with the goalie and he was able to put it in, which was nice because he is not known as a scorer for us. He had the composure to slip it in, which was nice and he had the first goal in the Jackson game for us.

"He is a dog - he has got that dog mentality and I told him he was going to have to, because that's what Zach is for them. He is the heart and hustle of that team. But Jake is also a hard-worker. He does a lot of the dirty work for us."

Despite spotting the defending South Jersey Group IV champions three goals, Freehold Township clawed back. In the 50th minute, senior Shane O'Malley volleyed a corner kick by senior Adam Havens back toward the right post, junior Herman Colbert headed it toward the front of the goal and junior defender Josh Hocheiser finished it off with his head.

Havens brought the Patriots within one in the 58th by chipping a shot over Toms River North goalkeeper Dawson Kaniuk, off the far left post and in. Kaniuk responded by shutting down the box and saving a pair of shots by Freehold Township Orrico in the final six minutes.

A missed chance in the early stages of the game wound up making a difference in the outcome. O'Malley caught Kaniuk off his line and hit a shot that struck the bottom of the crossbar and came down outside the goal-line.

"I couldn't be more proud of my guys," Freehold Township coach Josh Mehl said. "They are champions, they have been champions before and they showed the heart of champions just by not quitting."

Freehold Township is the defending Shore Conference Tournament champion and will remain so until next year after the tournament was canceled in 2020. The Patriots rostered 17 seniors this season and with Orrico, Havens, O'Malley, goalkeeper John Wilhelm, defender Josh Leonetti, defender Anthony Barthel, defender Aiden Szymanski and midfielder Joe Lardaro all set to graduate from the starting lineup at the end of the school year.

"This is one of the most quality groups I have ever had in terms of character, and toughness " Mehl said. "It would have been really easy to quit at halftime and down 3-0. But these guys, their career was on the line and with 17 seniors, to go down 3-0 and fight back like that and get opportunities speaks to their love for each other. They didn't want their careers to end and I didn't think, for one second, they were going to quit."

The high-scoring affair was somewhat reminiscent of the 2019 opener between the teams, which Toms River North won, 5-4. That remained the Mariners' biggest win of the regular season, as they entered the NJSIAA Tournament with an 8-7-1 record that was just barely enough to get the Mariners the No. 16 seed in the section.

"Just like last year, these guys love being around one another and they don't want the season to end," Mahon said. "That was the biggest thing last year and we were playing our best soccer at the time and they didn't want to stop practicing and hanging out with each other."

Now, Toms River North is one win away from capturing a postseason title for the second straight season. In order to do so, the Mariners will have to beat a Southern side that they failed to beat in two tries last week with the unofficial Class A South title on the line. Southern won the first meeting, 4-3, in overtime and the second game ended in a 3-3 tie.

"I feel like these guys are battle-tested now," Mahon said. "Over the last week-and-a-half, the games we have played are against big Group IV schools, well-coached, good teams."

"The excitement from the seniors has really been motivating us," Nagle said. "We have been playing with them for three years and we want to keep playing with them. We want to win it again for them."