PT. PLEASANT BOROUGH - For the first time during this year's Shore Conference Tournament Saturday, Toms River North failed to score in the opening minutes despite applying the same kind of early pressure that led to quick scores in each of the first two rounds.

Instead of frustration setting in, the Mariners' confidence ballooned. They knew they had what it takes to beat the Shore's last remaining unbeaten team.

The Mariners absorbed a 73rd-minute equalizer by No. 1 seed Middletown North and senior Jaszmin Brown struck for the game-winning header with 4:24 left to catapult fifth-seeded Toms River North to a 2-1 win over the previously-unbeaten Lions.

With the win, Toms River North is back in the Shore Conference Tournament championship game for the first time since winning the tournament for the first time in 2012.

"At the beginning of the season, we knew we had some rough edges, but we knew we could built upon that," Brown said. "We had the confidence that if we could win a lot of games while going through that rough start, we could take it to that next level once we started playing as well as we knew we could."

In each of its two previous SCT wins over St. John Vianney and Shore Regional, Toms River North scored within the first five minutes and although the Mariners put Middletown North under heavy pressure in the opening minutes again, Lions standout senior keeper Haley Martin kept them off the board.

"After the first few minutes, when we came out strong and put some pressure on, I think we picked up on our speed being a factor," Toms River North coach Tom Miller said. "We're at our best when we're playing the ball to the corners to get our attack going and we were able to do a lot of that today."

Toms River North regularly tested Martin, with 13 of the 15 shots the Mariners took landing on target. The bombardment, however, did not pay off on the scoreboard until the 57th minute and it came on a quick-strike counter.

After turning away a chance by Middletown North, Toms River North was off to the races, beginning with senior midfielder Marisa Tava. Tava beat a defender and carried the ball over midfielder before sliding the ball in the direction of the left flag. Sophomore Alexa Peto ran onto it, took it toward the end-line and ripped a shot toward the goal that Martin parried away.

Junior Julia Fiorito, however, zeroed in on the ball when it deflected away from Martin and knocked it into the goal for the opening score of the game.

"Early on I think our girls realized they may be 16-0 be they can be beat," Miller said. "They were confident coming into the game and I think that confidence just kept growing as we kept getting shots and obviously when we got the goal."

Middletown North was not, however, going to give up its perfect season without a fight. Junior Darien Rinn elevated over a pack of players in the box to head in a corner kick by senior Casey Bogues with 7:05 left on the clock for a dramatic equalizer that momentarily preserved the 16-0 start to the season.

Shortly after conceding the tying goal, Toms River North earned its eighth corner kick of the game and Brown headed Madison Bennert's service back toward the corner from where it came. Bennert slid up to play another cross into the box and this time, Brown connected for a header that found its mark in the left corner of the goal.

"I just screamed, I didn't know what to do," Brown said of her reaction to scoring the winner.

Brown did a little bit of everything for Toms River North on Saturday, winning balls in the midfield, unleashing long throw-ins and launching three other long, booming shots that forced Martin to test her range and keep her eyes on the edge of 18-yard box.

"Their defense was pushed back a lot and we were switching the ball well from side to side," Brown said. "That moves the positioning of the keeper and when the game is moving quick, it's hard to see the direction the shot is going. As long as you play quick and keep the shots on target, anything can happen."

On the other end, only three of Middletown North's 12 shots in the game were on goal. The Lions nearly struck in the first minute of the second half on a header that sailed just over the crossbar.

Rinn's team-leading 16th goal of the season was the first allowed by Toms River North during the SCT. For the second straight game, junior and leading scorer Emily Royson started at center fullback to shore up the Mariners defense.

"With (Royson) back there, you know she is going to do her thing and we are going to be in great hands," Miller said. "It's going to take something special to get past her."

Saturday marked the third straight time that Toms River North was in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals and the win over Middletown North was a breakthrough after back-to-back losses in the semifinals to Freehold Township in 2016 and Wall last year.

"We've been stressing it since the tournament started: we've got to find a way to get to the final," Miller said. "The seniors have been in this position before, but they haven't had a chance to play for a championship and that's what they really wanted and we wanted to get it for them."


Box Score

Toms River North 2, Middletown North 1

Toms River North (11-3-1)022
Middletown North (16-1)011

Goals (Assists): (TRN) Julia Fiorito (Alexa Peto) 57', Jaszmin Brown (Madison Bennert) 76'; (MN) Darien Rinn (Casey Bogues) 73'
Shots: Toms River North, 15-12
Saves: (TRN) Cameron Kennett 2; (MN) Haley Martin 11


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