When the 2017 ended for the Middletown North girls soccer team in the NJSIAA North Jersey Group III semifinals, it was not just the seniors who felt like they missed their best chance to win a championship.

Even the starters slated to return in 2018 thought that, with its mix of experience and talent, if there ever was a year to accomplish big things, 2017 was that year.

Then Middletown North opened its 2018 season with consecutive 8-0 wins. After that, the Lions won two more one-sided games. Then they won close game against a big-name opponent. Then another, then another followed by another.

One full 13-game regular season later, Middletown North is the only perfect team left in the Shore Conference and is the undisputed favorite heading into the Shore Conference Tournament, which begins on Friday and will begin for Middletown North - which earned a first-round bye - on Tuesday against the winning of Friday's Freehold Boro at Jackson Memorial match.

Middletown North's Katelyn Reid (6) congratulates Lindsay O'Keefe on her goal Wednesday vs. Colts Neck. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

The current players were right to anticipate a program-defining season at Middletown North - they just had to hold on for one more year.

"We didn't see it coming. We had to work for it," said senior forward Lindsay O'Keefe, who scored the lone goal in Wednesday's 1-0 win over Colts Neck that clinched the Shore Conference Class B North division championship. "Preseason, we didn't think we were going to be as strong as last year and we knew we were going to have to work harder than we did last year to be better and we did that."

As is the case with any team that earns a No. 1 seed in any Shore Conference Tournament, it was not about the number of wins for Middletown North but rather who those wins came against. Among the Lions' victims this season were second-seeded Red Bank Catholic, defending champion Wall, 2015 and 2016 champion Colts Neck, and perennial Middlesex County contender East Brunswick.

"I wouldn't have guessed we would be undefeated by almost the end of the regular season," seventh-year coach Patricia Misciagna said. "We had some really good teams on our schedule. I knew we could be at the top of our division and there were just a few games we had to get and we have gotten them. All of the ifs and maybes that we needed to happen have happened so things have kind of fallen our way to this point and that's because they have worked for it."

"After getting win after win after win and getting closer to the end of the season, it has only made us want it more," senior defender and captain Casey Bogues said. "We knew we were right there (for a division title) and we wanted to keep it going."

Middletown North senior Casey Bogues.(Photo by Paula Lopez)

The two games that opened the players' eyes to the possibilities this season came against St. John Vianney - another dangerous opponent whose record is held back only by the high level of competition the Lancers have played game in and game out - and an East Brunswick. With overtime approaching and the score tied a 2-2 against Vianney, junior Katelyn Reid came up with the play that set the tone for the rest of her team's regular season.

One game later, the Lions knocked off an East Brunswick team that nearly knocked off Freehold Township in last year's Central Jersey Group IV final and has aspirations to finish the job this year.

"When we have gone into big games, it's just felt different," O'Keefe said. "Beating East Brunswick was the big one. When we put up two goals against them and came out with a win there, we were like, 'Wow, we've got this. We can beat these teams.'"

Reid scored the game-winning goal with 14 seconds left to give Middletown North a 3-2 win over St. John Vianney - a win that improved the Lions to 5-0 and, more importantly, showed this year's team that the shortcomings in close games and against top teams that happened in 2017 were, indeed, a thing of the past.

Going back to 2017, Middletown North came close to getting over the hump against a number of noteworthy opponents, but found themselves on the losing end far more than they would have liked. After beating Red Bank Catholic in the second game of the season, the Lions lost competitive games to Wall, Middletown South, a rematch with Red Bank Catholic, Colts Neck and Somerville - the last of which was a 2-1 loss in the NJSIAA Tournament.

The Wall loss was particularly frustrating because not only did the Lions let an opportunity to beat the No. 1 team in the state slip away in a 4-3 overtime loss, but they were never quite able to build on it as well as Misciagna and her players would have liked.

Middletown North senior Gabi Triolo. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Perhaps even more surprising than the results is the fact that Middletown North is doing it with defense. Three of the team's four starters from last year's back line graduated, with only senior center back Gabi Triolo returning in front of four-year starting goalkeeper Haley Martin.

Bogues sacrificed some scoring chances to move back to outside fullback in an effort to shore up the defense, while junior Hayley Stratton and sophomore Carly Binn have stepped up and filled open spots as well.

"The girls who have stepped in and taken those spots have all stepped up," Triolo said. "They weren't used to those positions but all of them are playing fantastic."

"I could say one word to Gabi and she knows what I'm thinking," Bogues said. "Just that combination - not just with the two us us but with all of us in the back - really works together and I think that's where we're finding our success."

Since the St. John Vianney win, the Lions have not conceded more than one goal in any game and have posted five straight shutouts. Martin has been a steady presence in the back and a force between the pipes while contributing to seven of those shutouts. Maeve Smith is another senior goalkeeper on the roster and picked up one of the eight clean sheets.

"Our defense owes a lot to our phenomenal goalkeepers," Bogues said. "The reason why we don't have many goals against is because they are coming out and flying and making phenomenal saves."

With Bouges now in the back, the offense has not missed a beat. After 13 games, the Lions are averaging better than three goals per game (41 total). Junior striker Darien Rinn leads the team with 10 goals and senior teammate and O'Keefe is right behind her with nine goals and four assists. Senior midfielders Kaleigh Harmon and Emily McCarthy have directed the attack from the middle, with each contributing four goals and Harmon leading the team with seven assists.

Middletown North senior Kaleigh Harmon. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

As the Lions gear up to put their No. 1 status to the test in the Shore Conference Tournament beginning on Tuesday, they are hearing from former players in the program who encourage them to keep it going. It has been 13 years since Middletown North reached the SCT championship game and 14 since the Lions captured the title. Going back further, Middletown North was the gold standard in the Shore Conference when it won three straight titles from 1991 to 1993.

"There are teachers here who were on the team and alumni reach out to let us know that they are watching us and cheering us on," O'Keefe said. "We want to do it for everyone."

"This year isn't just for us," Bogues said. "I remember girls on the team my freshman year who would kill for a chance to be on this team and doing what we are doing now. We want to do it for them and everyone else who has made this program what it is today."

Middletown North coach Patricia Misciagna. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Misciagna knew all about Middletown North's golden years when she took over the program in 2012, but also that the Lions were a long way from those days.

"My first year or two the goals were very different than they are now," said Misciagna, a standout on Red Bank Catholic's 1999 Shore Conference Tournament championship team before moving on to play at Villanova. "It was just about trying to win a game and eventually just trying to be .500 were our more realistic goals. Seeing those banners with the Shore Conference championships and division titles didn't really hold too much weight for us because our goals were more modest. After winning a Shore Conference and state game the last two years, I think those banners are starting to become more realistic."

Although the process has taken a year longer than many of the players had hoped, they are relishing that the day has finally come again when Middletown North is the team to beat at the Shore Conference. With four more wins, they will have a banner to prove it.

"It's a good feeling being undefeated and No. 1 but we know what have to keep working just as hard as we have all year to keep it going," Triolo said.

"They know there is a little bit of a target on our back now and I think they kind of like it," Misciagna said. "Being the only undefeated team left in the Shore, every team is going to come out wanting to beat us and ready to work a little bit harder than usual to do it. It's been that way for a few weeks now and I think they have already embraced it."