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TOMS RIVER -- The Freehold Township girls soccer team has gotten used to life as the No. 1 ranked team in New Jersey and worn the crown well, heavy as it may be.

That does not mean, however, the Patriots have trucked every challenger to their spot at the top. Multiple teams have put Freehold Township in early holes on the scoreboard and Toms River North was the latest to do so Wednesday in the NJSIAA Group IV semifinal on the Mariners home turf.

Just as they have done all year, Freehold Township bounced back, protected its unbeaten record and moved one step closer to history.

Sophomore Ainsley Moy buried a left-footed blast from 20 yards out and freshman Gaby Parker scrapped for the game-winner just before halftime as the Patriots bounced back from a one-goal deficit to beat the Mariners, 2-0, and remain unbeaten and reach the Group IV championship game for the third time in seven years.

"It's a great feeling," Moy said. "We have played every game with our hearts and every time we go out on the field, we all know we have to put our best out there. I think everyone is just so happy we made it this far. We're still in it, so we're excited to go to the finals."

Toms River North jumped on top in the 18th minute, when sophomore Alexis Garcia timed a bouncing ball in the box off a corner kick by senior Faith Wavershak and volleyed it into the left corner of the goal for a 1-0 Mariners lead.

"We didn't come out as best as we could, but as soon as we picked up how they were playing and what formation they were in, we settled in and we adjusted well," Moy said.

"I didn't think they outworked us in the beginning and seemed like they wanted it more," senior captain Kelsey Gilroy said. "Once they put that goal in, we realized 'This is it if we don't step it up.' And we stepped it up."

Freehold Township has trailed twice during tournament play -- once against Manalapan in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals and again in Friday's Central Jersey Group IV final vs. Rancocas Valley -- and was tied, 1-1, with Toms River North in the Shore Conference Tournament final. Friday's come-from-behind, overtime win over Rancocas Valley was a reassuring one for Freehold Township when it comes to playing from behind.

"They really put a lot of pressure on us in the middle of the field with some more numbers in the middle of the field," Freehold Township coach Dave Patterson said. "It took us a little bit to adjust and we did go down, but that's not something we haven't done before. We were down against Manalapan, a couple other scenarios as well and our girls know they have to play a full 80 minutes."

A little more than five minutes later, Freehold Township struck back. Sophomore Cassidy Corcione beat a defender and slid the ball over to Moy, who juked a defender and unleashed a left-footed strike that dipped under the bar for the equalizer.

"Cassidy played it under to me and I saw a player on my back and I knew she was going to step," Moy said. "So I cut it back the other way and it went in."

Moy was a problem for Toms River North in Freehold Township's 3-1 win over the Mariners in the Shore Conference Tournament championship game, but did not walk off the field at Barnegat High School with a goal to show for her effort. On Wednesday, she got her goal vs. Toms River North and it was arguably the best of her 18 goals on the season.

Freehold Township took over the lead just before the half, starting with a long free kick by senior Kelsey Gilroy. Sophomore Hailey Santiago got a touch on Gilroy's service and Parker knocked it in with 1:27 left until the half showing on the scoreboard clock.

The Patriots got a scare in the final five minutes when Parker hit the turf hard and was taken off the field in an ambulance with back injury. According to Patterson via Twitter, x-rays on Parker's lower back came back negative.

"It's tough for a player as influential as her to go down, but I think we all wanted to play for her," Gilroy said. "We have a lot of diversity on the team and just a lot of versatile players who can step up in different roles. We're hoping she is okay and will be able to come back to practice, but we will be ready for whatever happens."

"Gaby Parker is a freshman but she doesn't play like a freshman," Patterson said. "From the beginning of the season, she scored a bunch of goals real quick and really developed and rounded out her game throughout the season. She was always a big part of what we're doing, but now she is involved in the possession, she works back defensively. What she has meant to this team in the Shore Conference Tournament and state tournament has been incredible.

"Our thoughts are with her. We believe she is going to be fine and be back training with us very soon."

Toms River North had two golden opportunities to tie the game in the 67th and 68th minutes, with senior Emma Eberle popping a shot from inside the six-yard box over the crossbar and junior Madison DiEugenio heading a shot off the crossbar a minute later.

"I thought we played significantly better than we did in the Shore Conference final," Toms River North coach Tom Miller said. "We made some changes and I thought it worked. We knew we weren't going to get a ton of chances, but we thought we could limit the chances that they got this time."

The two near-misses made the loss all the more excruciating for Toms River North, which lost just two games all season -- both to Freehold Township. The South Jersey Group IV championship was the second sectional title for the Mariners in the last six years and while both of those seasons ended in the same round, the 2021 season was the closest Toms River North has come to winning the Group IV championship. Five years after losing to Hunterdon Central, 2-0, in the 2016 final, Toms River North held an early lead against the state's No. 1 team on Wednesday.

"If you are going to lose two games, you want it to be to a team like that," Miller said. "They are very, very good. It is hard to win against competition that's at that level and I thought we gave ourselves a real shot today. That probably makes this hurt more because this is probably the closest we have come to taking that next step, but I think it should also make this group really proud of the way they played all year."

After surviving its trip to Toms River with an unbeaten record and No. 1 ranking in the state intact, Freehold Township will head to Kean University on Sunday to take on No. 2 Westfield in a high-profile showdown with both the Group IV championship and top ranking in the state on the line.

"The first time we went to the (Group IV) final in 2016, it was like 'What is going on?,'" Patterson said. "We were happy to walk away with that tie and co-championship. The second time we came through with Jada and Jasmine Colbert, it was a different feeling. We knew we belonged in the game, but we were still an underdog in the game.

"When we took the number-one ranking in the state, it was an adjustment. It was something that we had to learn to play with. Now that we have done it for a bunch of games in a row, we have really embraced it."

With just two senior starters, Freehold Township not only has a chance to complete an undefeated 2021 season; the Patriots could be on the cusp of a special three-year run.

"It's a great feeling, especially because we have fallen short in the pass" Gilroy said. "Being at this point is amazing, especially as a senior. To finish it off with a game like this is awesome."


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