NEPTUNE -- Through the first three games of the 2023 season, the Howell girls soccer team was doing more finger-pointing at one another than goal-scoring, according to Rebels coach Miguel Arroyo.

Howell lost its firs three games of the season and was 3-5 after eight games -- hardly the start to the season the Rebels envisioned after reaching the 2022 Shore Conference Tournament final and returning a significant number of starters from that team to the 2023 roster.

"There was a lot of finger-pointing at the beginning of the season and even in the first half today: you are supposed to be over there, or you didn't do this -- that kind of thing," Arroyo said. "When the finger-pointing stopped earlier in the year, that's when we got better and that's something we remember."

Not only has Howell turned its season around; the Rebels are one win shy from turning those index fingers -- once reserved to assign blame -- toward to sky in celebration.

Howell -- seeded No. 12 in the 2023 Shore Conference Tournament -- recovered from a quick 1-0 deficit Saturday vs. No. 17 Manasquan to run away with a 4-1 win over the Warriors that sends the Rebels to the SCT championship game for the second straight season.

"They knew the expectations were high, they just couldn't experience it until they played the schedule they did and understood that now, you're the hunted," Arroyo said. "We lost to Brick Memorial, lost to Wall in overtime, lost to Manalapan and now, we are questioning ourselves. But Jade (Vieira) and the captains kept it together, believed in one another, chipped away and finally realized we are the same team we were last year."

Howell senior Jade Vieira (10) defended by Manasquan junior Ella Condon. (Photo: Eric Braun)
Howell senior Jade Vieira (10) defended by Manasquan junior Ella Condon. (Photo: Eric Braun)

Sophomore Veronica Nieves provided the winning goal in the 53rd minute -- the second of four consecutive goals after the Rebels conceded within the first four minutes of action.

It was nearly a 50-minute climb for Howell from the time it first fell behind until Nieves gave the Rebels the lead. Senior Rylie Rampone got Manasquan out to an early lead with a head-ball goal in the fourth minute of the match. Senior Renee Herbert served a free kick to the near left post and Rampone flicked a header to the far right corner of the goal.

Howell equalized eight minutes later, with freshman Makenzie Memmolo hammering home a cross from junior Ashley Smith. That was the last shot on goal by Howell in the first half, but in the second half, the Rebels asserted themselves.

In the 53rd minute, Nieves pounced on an errant pass after two Manasquan players collided near the ball and quickly unleashed a shot to the upper left corner of the goal for the tiebreaker.

Senior Jade Vieira added to Howell's lead in the 71st minute with a 40-yard free kick that she dropped over the reach of leaping Manasquan goalkeeper Gia Restivo and into the far right corner of the goal.

Before scoring her goal, Vieira took over the game in the center midfield as Howell controlled possession while limiting Manasquan to one shot in the second half. Vieira had a chance to make it 3-1 before her 40-yard blast, shaking free of a defender before ripping a near-post shot just above the target.

When lining up her free kick, Vieira drew inspiration from the jeers of the nearby Manasquan student section and shot them a long stare after connecting on her goal.

"They were in my ear a little bit, but for me personally, that sideline talk fuels me," Vieira said. "That little bit of anger helped me put it into the top far netting. That's usually my sweet spot. Gained that angle on it and it went in."

Junior Allison Nase capped the scoring with a 25-yard shot in the 74th minute.

"They have been playing out of their minds," Arroyo said of his team. "It's always someone new picking us up. We don't have that one person -- our best scorer (Memmolo) has 10 goals. We're looking for a new hero every time out. They truly believe and now, they can sense it. They can feel it and they want this thing now."

Howell junior Allison Nase (right) shadowed by Manasquan junior Ella Condon. (Photo: Eric Braun)
Howell junior Allison Nase (right) shadowed by Manasquan junior Ella Condon. (Photo: Eric Braun)

Howell did endure one loss within the win when Memmolo went down hard while making a run at the goal late in the second half. She left the game for good and left the field with her left arm in a sling. Despite the injury, Arroyo did not rule his freshman forward out for Saturday's game.

"She is tough," She holds the ball very well, she gets it down on her foot, she can distribute and she can finish as well. She has been playing injured all year. She didn't use her left foot to score until the Rumson game (in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals) because her ankle was hurt. As small as she is, as a freshman, she paid the price tonight, but knowing her, she'll be on the field on Saturday."

Howell freshman Makenzie Memmolo (31) marked by Manasquan freshman Samantha Price. (Photo: Eric Braun)
Howell freshman Makenzie Memmolo (31) marked by Manasquan freshman Samantha Price. (Photo: Eric Braun)

To claim its first ever Shore Conference Tournament championship, Howell will have to beat Middletown South -- the No. 7 seed and a 1-0 winner over No. 3 Central Regional on Thursday -- for a second time this season. The Rebels beat the Eagles, 3-2, in a Shore Conference Class A North divisional game on Sept. 20.

Neither Howell nor Middletown South has ever won a Shore Conference Tournament, so Saturday's final at Memorial Field in Neptune is guaranteed to produce a first-time champion.

"I think we're going to be more relaxed this time," Arroyo said. "It's like a regular game, it's just that everything we want is on the end of it. I think we learned last year that if you just play your game, stay calm, you'll be alright. We don't fear anybody."

Box Score

Howell 4, Manasquan 1

Manasquan (11-4-1)101
Howell (10-5)134

Goals (Assists): (M) Rylie Rampone (Renee Herbert) 4'; (H) Makenzie Memmolo (Ashley Smith) 11'; (M) Veronica Nieves 53'; (M) Jade Vieira (direct kick) 71'; (M) Allison Nase 74'
Shots: Howell, 8-5
Saves: (M) Gabby Restivo 2; (H) Madison Smith 2

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