FREEHOLD TWP. -- When the Freehold Township girls soccer team lost an overtime thriller against Shore Conference Class A North division rival Manalapan back on Oct. 5, the Patriots guaranteed they would not match the success of the 2022 team that went 22-1 with not losses to in-state competition.

Throw in a loss to Middletown South that guaranteed the Patriots would not win a third straight Shore Conference Tournament championship, and the lofty standard Freehold Township had set over the past two seasons would not be met this season.

Instead of folding, the Patriots made the emotional and physically recovery from a challenging season and have put together their best stretch of soccer at the most important time of the year.

The Patriots -- the top seed in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV section -- returned to their championship form Monday, defeating No. 3 Manalapan, 1-0, to claim their fourth straight sectional championship and second straight by beating the rival Braves in the final.

"It has definitely been a different year for us in terms of not winning everything, like we did last year," Moy said. "But I think we just use that as fuel to push us through these final few games. There is a bigger goal in mind, which is a state championship."

"Each year is its own team and they have their own journey, they have their own path," Freehold Township coach Dave Patterson said. "While we are certainly cognizant of what the teams have done in the past, we take take each season in and of itself and I think that's one of the last two seasons were so special."

Senior Ainsley Moy scored the winning goal in the 25th minute off a pass from junior Danielle Howard. Moy is Freehold Township's only four-year starter, with classmate Cassidy Corcione starting every year but 2022 -- which she missed while recovering from knee surgery -- and Hailey Santiago, Shea Jackson and Grace Miraglia slid into the lineup to become key players in subsequent years.

Moy's goal was the first shot of the game taken by Freehold Township, but it came during the later half of a first half that saw the Patriots own the lion's share of possession. They finally turned control of the ball into a score in the 25th, when Howard collected the ball 30 yards from the goal, settled it, and slipped a pass through to Moy.

With one defender keeping her onside, Moy let the ball settled on the unpredictable grass pitch at Freehold Township High School and calmly poked it past Manalapan sophomore goalkeeper Leila Shaw for the first and only score on Monday afternoon in Freehold.

Freehold Township's defense limited Manalapan's attack mostly to shots from outside the 18-yard box, although the Braves did create a pair of potentially dangerous opportunities late in the second half. Senior Sydney Spilsbury spun a shot wide of the right post off a cross from junior Savannah DiSabato in the 68th minute. In the 75th, senior Brooke-Lynn Galimidi got behind the back line for a header that also sailed past the outside of the right post.

Corcione and juniors Chloe Waters and Sophia Santorelli keyed the defense for Freehold Township, with junior Sophie Tonino running the defensive center midfield spot for Freehold Township's steady possession outfit.

Corcione was a weapon who played all over the field and led the Patriots in scoring as the N.J. Player of the Year during her sophomore year and has operated as left outside back in her return season from surgery. Her ability to defend and create has allowed Freehold Township to stick with a three-player back line even after the graduation of dominant center back Gabby Koluch.

Howard, meanwhile, has helped ease the loss of Freehold Township's other All-State 2023 graduate, Kayla Wong. Howard has combined with Moy as a one-two punch out of the midfield and the two combined on a championship-clinching score on Monday.

"The amount of times I have spoken to Dani about how she has taken such a significant step forward is just incredible," Patterson said. "She is someone who, from day one, we identified the talent. The thing that most people don't know about Dani is she has believed it all along. She knew that she was this players and she has that mentality that she is never going to back down from a challenge."

While the pieces have been on the roster all year, they have not always been healthy. With senior forward Hailey Santiago back in the lineup after missing four weeks, the Patriots lineup has fallen into place.

"We knew that if we got healthy and we were playing good soccer in whatever tournament we were in, we were going to have a chance," Patterson said. "I wouldn't say we had to change our mindset, we just had to understand that when that opportunity is there, we have to go take it.

"Where we are right now is what we envisioned in the offseason and in the summer. This is what we expected and the fact that we needed other people stepping up in spots really helped to improve the team. As strong as the first 11 are, 11 alone is hard to win a championship with."

Manalapan's bid for a sectional titles ends at the hands of Freehold Township for the second straight season. Over the last three seasons, Manalapan has faced Freehold Township four times in a tournament setting and fell short by one goal in each of the four matches. In two of them -- the 2021 Shore Conference Tournament semifinals and the 2022 Central Jersey Group IV championship game -- Manalapan took a lead on Freehold Township before the Patriots eventually came back.

This season, Manalapan did manage to take something away from Freehold Township. The Braves beat the Patriots, 2-1, in overtime on Oct. 5 to end a 46-game winning streak by Freehold Township against Shore Conference opponents. The win also clinched Manalapan the outright Class A North championship and the No. 1 seed in the Shore Conference Tournament.

Manalapan is set to graduate 10 seniors, including five from the starting lineup. With six starters due back, including sophomore standout Daniella Butash.

Following another dramatic win over Manalapan, Freehold Township will continue its Group IV championship defense Thursday at Central Regional -- the winner of the South Jersey Group IV section for the first time in program history.

"We want to keep playing for as long as we can and we definitely don't want to make any of these games our last," Moy said. "So I think if we just keep on going and get the win at the end of the season, it will make everything worth it."

Box Score

Freehold Twp. 1, Manalapan 0 

Manalapan (15-3)000
Freehold Twp. (18-3)101

Goals (Assists): (FT) Ainsley Moy (Danielle Howard) 25'
Shots: Freehold Twp., 11-6
Saves: (M) Leila Shaw 5, (FT) Ashley Moore 4

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