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BARNEGAT -- Two things were apparent by the final whistle of the Shore Conference Tournament semifinal between the Freehold Township and Manalapan girls soccer teams Monday night at Barnegat High School.

The first is that games played with a championship on the line in late October are not the same as the first game of the season in September. Freehold Township dominated Manalapan on opening day but saw a much different Braves team on Monday night in Ocean County.

The second is that with the way Freehold Township can strike in the blink of an eye, few leads against the Patriots -- the No. 1 seed in the SCT field and the top-ranked team in the state by NJ Advance Media -- are safe.

After trailing at half and facing a Manalapan team gaining confidence with each passing minute in the second half, Freehold Township finally got its opportunity and struck for two goals in a span of 56 seconds to turn the tide in a 2-1 win over the fifth-seeded Braves.

Freehold Township sophomore Cassidy Corcione. (Photo by Tom Smith |
Freehold Township sophomore Cassidy Corcione. (Photo by Tom Smith |

Sophomore Cassidy Corcione scored the equalizer in the 66th minute and less than a minute later, she found junior Kayla Wong with a cross that Wong finished for the game-winner.

"We didn’t want to go into overtime, we didn’t want to go into (penalty kicks), we knew we were controlling the game the whole time," Wong said. "We knew we just had to put it away at the end. That’s exactly what we did and I’m really proud of this team."

Prior to Corcione's goal, Manalapan grabbed a lead on a goal by sophomore Sydney Spilsbury in the 36th minute and frustrated Freehold Township during the first 20 minutes of the second half by defending and countering, nearly putting in a second goal with a pair of dangerous counter-attacks.

"We were expecting them to come as hard as they can, because in their eyes, this was revenge," Corcione said. "In our eyes, we had to keep our streak going and we both put in a fight. We had to be patient when were down 1-0. We never panicked and just needed to finish our opportunities."

Freehold Township, however, warded off those threats, dominated possession and eventually got their big break. Freshman Gaby Parker started the game-tying sequence by winning a 50-50 ball on the right side of the field and bolting past the only Manalapan player in her way.

With Manalapan's defense scrambling to recover, Parker sent a through-ball to the middle of the field, where Corcione made a run that beat the Manalapan defense. The sophomore touched the ball toward the left post and unleashed a left-footed strike that found the upper left corner of the goal.

"We made eye contact," Corcione said. "There was an open gap behind (the defense), I kept my line and I finished. I knew we had it in us from the start. I wish we didn’t let that goal up, but we couldn't focus on it and had to move on and that’s what we did and we won."

Before Manalapan could settle back in, Freehold Township was back on the attack, this time with Corcione tracking the ball down and taking it toward the end-line on the right side. She cut it back toward the goal and crossed it to the right side of the 18-yard box, where Wong took a touch and ripped a low shot to the left corner of the goal for a 2-1 Patriots lead in the 67th minute.

"I just remember taking a touch and when I saw an opening, I just knew, ‘I have to shoot it," Wong said. "You have to bury this for your team.'"

Manalapan pushed the ball into Freehold Township's third of the field over the final 10 minutes, but could not manage to put the Patriots under duress as the top seed continued to control play through the final whistle.

Before Freehold Township scored its two goals, however, Manalapan did shake up the top seed. In the 36th minute, after the Braves got off just one shot to that point in the game, Spilsbury, classmate Vanessa Sarf and freshman Kayla Sciortino went to work. Sarf got space on the right side and slipped the ball to Spilsbury in the middle of the 18-yard box. Spilsbury battled a trio of Manalapan defenders and got the ball knocked away, but Sciortino pounced on the loose ball and gave it right back to her. Spilsbury then took a touch and ripped a shot to the lower right corner of the goal to stun Freehold Township and send the Braves into the half on a high note.

"They saw us once before, which is why they knew our style," Wong said. "We knew they were going to come out with tons of energy, but when the goal went in, we were just like, ‘Let’s go, let’s bounce back.’ In the second half, that’s exactly what we did. We showed a lot of grit and at the end of the day, we got it done."

Monday's game was less like the 5-0, opening-day win by Freehold Township over Manalapan and more like the Patriots' 1-1 draw against Red Bank Catholic on Sept. 13 -- the lone game Freehold Township failed to win this season. In that game, Freehold Township fell behind and needed a penalty kick to even the game in the second half. While the Patriots were relieved to avoid the loss in that game, some of them saw it as a failure that they could not find a way to come back and win that match and that it took a penalty kick to earn the draw.

On Monday night, they proved to themselves they can rally from a deficit and earn crucial goals in the run of play.

"From the RBC game, as soon as they scored on us, it was 1-0 and we put our heads down and we could only get a penalty off," Corcione said. "In this game, we were fired up at halftime. Even the people on the bench and the sideline, we all got together and we just wanted to win so bad. Now we’re going to the finals."

Freehold Township will clash with No. 2 Toms River North in Thursday's SCT championship game at Barnegat and the two teams will enter with identical records. Toms River North beat Freehold Township in the 2019 semifinal round before losing to RBC in the championship game and last won a title in 2018. Freehold Township, meanwhile, has not won an SCT title since 2011 despite being a regular in the semifinal round under head coach Dave Patterson.

With a team that rosters only three seniors -- Lexi Konstantinidis, Kelsey Gilroy and Carly Shein -- Freehold Township has a chance to start a dynasty on Monday night, as well as end a decade of frustration.

"We all want to win," Corcione said. "We want to do it for the seniors and we have been wanting to do this for a long time and prove ourselves. Age doesn’t really matter at this point."

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