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NEPTUNE -- The 2022 high school soccer season is the Freehold Township girls soccer team's version of a redemption tour, and while that tour's ultimate destination is still three weeks away, the Patriots are making sure to enjoy each stop along the way.

The latest stop was Saturday's Shore Conference Tournament championship game and in fighting off an inspired Howell team playing in the title game for the first time, the Patriots managed to make a little history of their own.

Junior Hailey Santiago scored the lone goal of the game, senior Gabby Koluch led an airtight defensive performance and Freehold Township -- the No. 1 seed in the tournament -- topped No. 6 Howell, 1-0, for its second consecutive SCT championship and third overall.

Photo: Tom Smith |
Photo: Tom Smith |

"It’s an amazing feeling, especially being able to do it twice in a row," junior midfielder Ainsley Moy said. "This year, we have come with an expectation of what we need to do and what we want to accomplish. This is a check point in our season."

With its repeat title, Freehold Township becomes the fourth girls soccer program to win consecutive Shore Conference Tournament championships.

"Obviously, with the heartbreak we had last year, our goal is to do what we did last year and more," Koluch said. "We want our four stars: we got (Class) A North, we have Shore Conference now, we want our CJ 4 sectional championship and a state championship. That’s really pushed us to pursue our goals and really just work hard every day."

Three days prior to wrapping up another SCT championship, Freehold Township beat St. John Vianney in the tournament semifinals with what looked like a familiar script for most of Saturday's match. Just as she did on Wednesday against the Lancers, Santiago staked the Patriots to a 1-0 lead in the first half, this time knocking a corner kick from Moy out of the air and into the goal in the 29th minute.

"Everybody knows to game-plan for Hailey" Freehold Township coach Dave Patterson said. "I just think she is so fast that she just creates her own space out there. We just know when to find her sometimes we might even force it to her a little bit too much, but she always finds a way to find the angle, to find the space and when she gets the ball at her feet, we know she is beating the first defender, as well as the second and third a lot of the time as well.

"The goal today, she is a gutty kid and she is going to get nose on it, her foot, her knee on it – whatever she can do to help a teammate out. That’s just who Hailey is."

Santiago leads Freehold Township with 18 goals but in each of the past two games, she lost the defenders tracking her to get herself unchallenged shots from close to the goal. She also put on display her ability to turn on defenders and draw fouls, of which there were more than a dozen called on the Rebels.

"Hailey is one of the hardest-working people I know," Koluch said. "Even if she loses the ball, she gets it back literally in the next few seconds. She is aggressive, she plays hard and she gets on every single ball in the box and that has been key for us this year."

On Wednesday, Freehold Township tacked on the insurance goal in the 76th minute and added one more two minutes later to wrap up a 3-0 win. That second goal never came on Saturday and while the Patriots did not end up needing it, it made for some more anxious moments than the Shore's most dominant team over the last two years is used to.

"It's always harder playing a team a second time," Koluch said. "They know what to expect, they prepared better, they know how to play us. For us, it was just coming out knowing that we wanted to repeat what happened last year. We wanted to win Shore Conference again this year and as a team, we were really dedicated to winning. That team effort that we put in together made it as wholesome as it can be."

During the first 10 minutes of the second half -- a stretch that Freehold Township has routinely owned this season -- it was Howell that created the best scoring chances, putting up four shots total and three on goal during that stretch.

Freehold Township got settled in and got its attack organized while relying on Koluch, junior Grace Miraglia and sophomore Sophie Tonino to shut down its defensive third of the field in front of sophomore goalkeeper Ashley Moore. The clean sheet was the 12th shutout of the season for Freehold Township and the eighth in the last nine games.

"I play more of a six, or a defensive midfield, but I’m sacrificing my offensive desires to be more of that defensive presence for the team," Koluch said. "Me and Grace are on that back line together and we make sure that we keep it tight. When we work together and communicate, we keep the ball out of the net. We have a bunch of shutouts and that’s basically because me and Grace are constantly communicating with the other backs."

Freehold Township senior Gabyb Koluch. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Freehold Township senior Gabby Koluch. (Photo: Tom Smith |

"It’s a total game-changer," Patterson said of having Koluch in the back. "I could play Gabby at center-mid, at center forward, outside wing and she would be amazing at any of them. We needed her to be center back more so than ever before and she understood that’s what the team needed from her and she has done it flawlessly so far."

Although the Patriots never got their second goal, they had chances throughout the game that just barely missed. Sophomore Gaby Parker nearly broke onto the scoreboard in the 13th minute, but her apparent goal was waved off because she was ruled offsides on a free kick by senior Kayla Wong. Howell goalkeeper Madison Smith saved the shot by Wong by parrying it off the crossbar and it bounced to the feet of a charging Parker.

Once Freehold Township already had the lead, it also had some opportunities to put another goal on the board. Koluch grazed the crossbar on a free kick and Moy ripped one off the bar as well in the 64th minute, all as the Patriots regained control of the game after that 10-minute push from Howell.

"We have worked so much on our tactical understanding of the game and our mentality," Moy said. "Once strong thing about our team is our ability to pass the ball and our ability to be so dynamic on the attack and in transition. Finding those quick, simple passes, getting it forward, getting runners in the box and today, we were able to finish on the opportunity."

Howell made a desperate push forward in the final minute, but could not get off the shot to tie the game, with the Patriots clearing the ball out as the clock ran out.

Although Howell could not come through with the tying goal, its defense turned in a praiseworthy effort after losing to the Patriots, 3-0, during the regular season. Saturday marked just the third time this season Freehold Township has scored only one goal in a game and one of those was a 2-1 loss to nationally-ranked Archbishop Spalding.

Last year's Freehold Township SCT championship squad was the program's first Shore Conference champion in a decade and the Patriots did it with just two senior starters and a significant amount of impact from the sophomore and freshman classes. This year's group was more seasoned and had already experienced one conference championship run.

"Last year, they were talented players and we knew that, but they hadn’t done it at this stage," Patterson said. "The way they came together last year was fun and exciting and new and this year was about going out there and doing it again."

Now, the Patriots will turn their attention to the NJSIAA Group IV playoffs, which did not end as well as the last two Shore Conference Tournaments. Freehold Township won the Central Jersey Group IV championship and made it to the Group IV title game at Kean University, where the Patriots and Westfield were deadlocked at 0-0 for almost 80 full minutes. It took a goal with eight seconds left for Westfield to stun Freehold Township, denying the Patriots an undefeated season and a Group IV championship.

Hailey Santiago (right) celebrates her SCT championship goal with Ainsley Moy. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Hailey Santiago (right) celebrates her SCT championship goal with Ainsley Moy. (Photo: Tom Smith |

One potential opponent for Freehold Township at some point in the Central Jersey Group IV is Howell, which fell one win short of the program's first ever Shore Conference Tournament title in its first ever trip to the final.

The degree of difficulty for another championship-caliber season increased in May, when junior star Cassidy Corcione suffered a significant knee injury that knocked her out for the entire 2022 season. Even without Corcione -- who recently verbally committed to play at Clemson -- Freehold Township has standout talent around the field, with Wong (Princeton), Koluch (Villanova) and Moy (Texas Christian) already committed to play at Division I programs.

"When we knew we weren’t going to have Cassidy for this year, it was a huge blow because you don’t replace what Cassidy Corcione does on the field," Patterson said. "The way everyone rallied around each other and the way everyone stepped up and took on more of a responsibility on this team was just really incredible to see."

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