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FARMINGDALE -- Prior to Saturday's NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship game, it had been one full year since Freehold Township girls soccer team found itself trailing a team from New Jersey past the 70th minute of a game and the star player who saved their 2021 season with the equalizer was on the sideline wearing a varsity jacket on the sideline Saturday night.

From the first practice of the 2022 season, Patriots coach Dave Patterson has reminded his team that replacing injured 2021 N.J. Player of the Year and Clemson commit Cassidy Corcione was going to take a collective effort rather than the heroics of one person, but on Saturday night, the Patriots needed a hero.

With the season on the line against sixth-seeded Manalapan, sophomore Gaby Parker and junior Hailey Santiago delivered the defining performance of the Patriots' 2022 season and kept the Freehold Township redemption tour going.

Parker buried the equalizer in the 74th minute off a deflected pass from Santiago and in the third minute of overtime, Santiago finished a through-ball from classmate Ainsley Moy for the golden goal in a thrilling, 2-1 win that sent the top-seeded Patriots to their second straight Central Jersey Group IV championship.

"I don't think I have ever been more aggravated in a game and scoring that was such a relief and a rush of emotion," Santiago said. "I wanted it so much and I think we all wanted it so much. It was amazing."

"I was really proud of their resolve and the way they kept working and kept pushing," Freehold Township coach David Patterson said. "It's always tough when you build, build build and the defense keeps sending big balls out and you have to build again. But we kept building, and the girls made sure they were always putting balls back in the box, making runs and when Hailey found Gaby in the middle and she got the goal, it was an amazing feeling and they could really get back to playing good soccer."

Photo: Matt Manley
Photo: Matt Manley

With Manalapan on the brink of a huge upset, Freehold Township scratched and clawed for the equalizer for nearly 30 minutes. In the 74th, the dam finally broke and it started, like many of Freehold Township's goals this season, with Santiago making a run of the left-side. The junior cut the ball back and ripped a shot that was blocked and redirected to the opposite side of the box.

Parker, stepped in front of a Manalapan defender to win the ball and shot a left-footed strike that tucked into the far left corner of the goal for the equalizer with 6:49 showing on the clock.

"I saw Kayla and Gaby on the other side of the 18 and I just tried to get the ball to the middle," Santiago said. "I saw the ball bounce to Gaby and I was so happy when I saw it go in. I love Gaby. I always have so much confidence when she gets the ball at her feet."

Immediately after scoring the goal, Parker had trouble catching her breath and spent the remainder of the game on the bench. Patterson said he was not sure what the ailment was, but also said she was likely could have gone back into the game had it gone longer and should be ready for the next round on Tuesday.

Manalapan survived the final six-plus minutes of regular to advance the Central Jersey Group IV championship game into overtime, but the Braves could only withstand Freehold Township's attack for so long.

"When we got to overtime, we said, 'Listen, we're 1-1 going to overtime against Freehold Township,' Manalapan coach John Rogers said. "We'll take that.' A lot of people didn't give us much of a shot and to get it to overtime to give us a shot, to try to get back to what we were doing in the later half of the season. Unfortunately, it didn't go our way and it's just a really, really tough one to swallow."

In the third minute of overtime, junior Ainsley Moy drove the ball up the middle of the field and played a pass through toward Santiago, who timed up her run perfectly, ran it down and capped off the comeback with a sliding finish past a charging Shaw.

"I was watching the defense the entire time and when I saw Ainsley slip that ball, I was like, 'I gotta get there,'" Santiago said. "I saw the goalie come out to get and I knew I had to slide to get it."

Hailey Santiago is lifted up by her Freehold Township teammates after scoring the championship-winning golden goal vs. Manalapan. (Photo: Matt Manley)
Hailey Santiago is lifted up by her Freehold Township teammates after scoring the championship-winning golden goal vs. Manalapan. (Photo: Matt Manley)

Saturday's championship comeback was reminiscent of last year's Central Jersey Group IV final, which Freehold Township also won under the lights on Howell's turf. Facing a 3-2 deficit vs. Rancocas Valley, it took a 72nd-minute goal by Corcione to send the game into overtime and a golden goal by current senior Kayla Wong to win it. Wong was again instrumental Saturday for Freehold Township, with the Princeton commit teaming with Moy and sophomore Danielle Howard to control the middle of the field.

"The idea all year long is you don't replace what Cassidy Corcione does on the field," Patterson said. "Nobody believes that anybody out here is going to do everything she does and do it the way that she does, but we have to recreate it in the team. Everyone just has to understand that they need to do a little bit more and that's what we've had."

Freehold Township's considerable edge in possession, however, did not help the Patriots on the scoreboard for the first 73 minutes. Manalapan broke through with a goal in the 46th, when senior Vanessa Sarf knocked in a point-blank shot off Freehold Township goalkeeper Ashley Moore and in after a long free kick by senior Daniella Butash.

In going down 1-0 in the second half, Freehold Township faced its latest deficit of the season against an in-state opponent and just the second deficit all year long. The Patriots went down, 1-0, to Toms River South in the first half of the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals but equalized before halftime and went on to win, 5-1.

"The key was to stay positive," Santiago said. "We were getting aggravated with each other and the only way we were going to score is if we started working together and boosting each other up, and that's what we did."

From there the Braves dug in their heels on defense and leaned on freshman goalkeeper Leila Shaw, who came through with 12 saves on the night, including a pair of dazzling stops in the second half on shots by Moy and Santiago.

In the 57th minute Moy unleashed a left-footed strike toward the upper right of the frame, but Shaw denied her the equalizer with a parry the clanged off the football crossbar and bounced into the outside of the netting. The contact with the net made for the appearance of a goal, but the officials conferred and ruled that the ball indeed hit the exterior crossbar after the save.

In the 64th, Shaw got turned around after coming off her line, leaving Santiago with space to finish the equalizer. The freshman keeper, however, scrambled back toward her line and swatted the shot away to momentarily preserve the lead.

"I was more frustrated with myself and I think that's how we all kind of felt," Santiago said. "But (Shaw) was a good goalie. She played a great game and made it tough on us."

The defensive effort was almost enough to carry Manalapan to a historic win, but once Freehold Township pulled even, it was hard for the Braves to revert back to attack mode after committing to defense for nearly 30 minutes.

"A goal that late stings," Rogers said. "We were able to get it to overtime and we tried to reset and regroup and unfortunately, it wasn't able to go our way. They are a fantastic team, but we're a great team too and I really thought that we had it. I couldn't be more proud of the way that they fought and if a few more things go our way, maybe it's us holding the trophy."

Saturday's near-upset was a significant turn-around for a Manalapan side that lost, 4-0, to Freehold Township during the regular season. The difference in score was similar to 2021, when the Braves lost to Freehold Township, 4-0, in Class A North divisional play, then took a 1-0 lead on the Patriots in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals before ultimately falling, 2-1.

"We remember what happened against them last year," Santiago said. "Even though we beat them 4-0, we knew they were going to come back even stronger. They have been playing way better than they did against us earlier in the season, so props to them for getting here."

While Saturday's win was one to remember, Freehold Township is still two wins away from the ultimate redemption. The Patriots will head south to play at South Jersey Group IV champion Eastern in the Group IV semifinal on Tuesday, with the winner advancing to play in the Group IV final at Kean University on Nov. 13.

Freehold Township reached the Group IV final and lost to Westfield, 1-0, on a game-winning goal with eight seconds left in regulation. While the Patriots still have redemption on their mind, it will not be in the form of revenge since Westfield -- the No. 1 team in the state, according to NJ Advance Media -- was eliminated on penalty kicks Saturday by Watchung Hills.

The Patriots won't have a chance to complete an undefeated season like they had a year ago, but taking a 2-1 loss to Archbishop Spalding in Maryland was a chance to learn from a loss and take the weight of an undefeated season off the team's shoulders.

"They have handled this whole year with class, with great leadership and it starts with the two seniors, Kayla and Gabby Koluch," Patterson said. "Ainsley has also been great stepping forward and being a vocal leader, Ashley (Moore) from the back, and I think that road trip we did helped a lot.

"We really challenged ourselves and we took a loss against a very good team and that took a little bit of pressure off. It also made us realize that we never want to have that feeling again and whatever it takes is what they're going to do to get back to the group final and, hopefully, get a better result."


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