MIDDLETOWN - If there was any question whether the Middletown North girls soccer team would be a confident bunch playing in the program's first championship game in 13 years Tuesday, the Lions answered it before anyone could dot the question mark.

Sophomore Ashley Dietrich scored 34 seconds into the North Jersey Section 2, Group III final Friday at home against Cranford and later added a huge second-half insurance goal as the Lions - the No. 1 seed in the field - beat the No. 2 Cougars, 3-1, to win their first sectional title since 2005.

"It's unreal," Dietrich said. "We haven't won a championship here since 2005 and we're so excited. We did not want to lose again and that just kind of pushed us to work harder."

"This group of girls is so special," senior goalkeeper Haley Martin said. "There is no better feeling than this. For four years, we have been working on this, preparing to play our game, figuring out ways what style is going to work best for us. Through it all, we stayed together and we got it done."

Photo by Matt Manley.
Photo by Matt Manley.

With Dietrich's lightning-quick strike in the first minute and junior Darien Rinn's 20th goal of the season in the 14th, Middletown North seized control of the game from the early moments and that helped them withstand a surge by Cranford over the tail end of the first half.

"We were really confident coming in," Dietrich said. "We were really pumped up in the locker room and everything and we were saying it was really important that we came out strong from the start and that's what we did."

Dietrich surprised everyone on the field and in attendance Friday when she ran onto a pass from senior Lindsay O'Keefe carried it into the right side of the 18-yard box and skipped a low shot that nestled into the far left side netting to land an early blow for Middletown North.

The Lions' next shot attempt came 13 minutes later, when senior Kaleigh Harmon knocked a pass through two defenders to start the sequence. Rinn cut in front of a third Cranford defender to win the ball, created a shooting lane and slipped a shot into the lower right corner to extend Middletown North's lead to 2-0 and hit the 20-goal plateau in her junior season.

The early deficit forced Cranford to push up an extra forward and the Cougars turned they pressure into a goal in the 30th minute, when Lauren Williamson headed in a free kick by Claire Ganley from midfield.

"In the last four minutes (of the first half) we were really frantic and everyone was trying to just kick the ball up the field," Dietrich said. "We needed to calm down and play our game and that's what we did."

After fighting back a surge of Cranford pressure to close out the half, Middletown North regained control of the the pace and took advantage of a corner kick in the 50th minute. Sophomore Allie O'Keefe served the corner kick to the front of the goal, where Cranford goalkeeper Amanda Vath punched it off to her left. A Cougars defender attempted to clear it and the ball went right to Dietrich. The sophomore stopped the ball in the air and one-timed a volley to the far left corner from 14 yards out.

"I didn't think anything of it," Dietrich said of her second goal. "I just turned around and tried to get it in the direction of the goal and it ended up going right in."

Middletown North's defense dug its heels in over the final 30 minutes and performed like the unit that has allowed 13 goals in 22 games over the course of the season. Martin did her part by saving three shots.

"We knew it was going to be a dogfight in the second half, especially with the rain picking up," coach Patricia Misciagna said. "We just needed to play to our strength and that has been our defense. Those girls in the back have been steady all year and we were happy to put the game in their hands in the second half."

The Lions failed to make the championship game in the Shore Conference Tournament, losing to eventual champion Toms River North in the semifinals for their lone loss of the season. With a team of players who had never even made it that far in a postseason tournament, the Lions had to quickly regain their confidence once the state tournament started.

"I think that one really stung our girls but we just told them you lost to a good team and that's going to happen sometimes," Misciagna said. "I didn't change what we did in the other 17 games and I think we know what we're good at, we know how we want to play and we just went back to work and came into this tournament that much hungrier."

Middletown North will put its memorable, 21-win season to the ultimate test in Tuesday's Group III semifinal game at Livingston High School. The Lions will play one of two teams ranked in the top 10 in the state, according to NJ.com, with the winner of the rivalry game between Northern Highlands and Ramapo advancing to play Middletown North.

Northern Highlands has been to seven of the last nine Group III finals, won four in a row from 2011 to 2014 and won a share of the title in both 2010 and 2016. Ramapo, meanwhile, defeated Northern Highlands earlier in the year and has won eight group championships in its history.

Last year, Middletown South stunned Northern Highlands, 1-0, in the Group III semifinal and the North-siders will try to do the same as their neighbors to the south.

"I'm sure we'll take a good look at whichever teams wins and we'll get ourselves ready," Misciagna. "Whoever it is, we are going to look to play our game. It's gotten us this far and I think we have a group that's confident in what they do so we are going to do what we do and I think that's going to give us a chance."


Box Score

Middletown North 3, Cranford 1

Cranford (18-4)101
Middletown North (21-1)213

Goals (Assists): (C) Lauren Williamson (Claire Ganley) 30'; (MN) Ashley Dietrich (Lindsay O'Keefe) 1', Darien Rinn (Kaleigh Harmon) 14', Ashley Dietrich (Allie O'Keefe) 50'
Shots: Middletown North, 3-1
Saves: (C) Amanda Vath 3; (MN) Haley Martin 3


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