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FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP — With the amount of offensive firepower it lost to graduation, Freehold Township is very much a team in transition. Having a player as well-rounded as junior midfielder Billy Sasso certainly helps soften the blow.

Sasso, a face-off wizard last season as a sophomore, has had a larger role thrust upon him this season. So far, he’s been everything the Patriots had hoped for.

Sasso dished out six assists and scored a goal, all while going 10-of-13 on face-offs to lead Freehold Township to a 9-6 Shore Conference Class A North victory over rival Howell on Thursday evening. Freshman attackman Drew Dunn scored three times and midfielder Mike Coppa tallied twice in front of an 11-save performance by goalie Chris Favale to improve the Patriots’ record to 3-0 and give them their first divisional win.

“It was definitely a big game,” Sasso said. “They’re one of our main competitors in the A-North division, and if we want to win the public title we have to beat them.”

Howell suffered its first loss of the season after a 2-0 start. Junior attackman Jake Sherman struck three times while junior middie Zach Ornstein added a pair of goals for the Rebels. Junior goalie Pete Rush stopped 10 shots.

With players like Dan Bloodgood, last year’s leading scorer in the Shore and current Monmouth University freshman, out of the equation, the Patriots need a different identity this season. That is especially true early in the season with 50-goal scorer Steven O’Brien making his way back from an ankle injury and junior Brandon Nunez recovering from a concussion. Sasso’s face-off work has been the equalizer. He won 77 percent of his face-offs on Thursday, and his ability to turn wins into quick transition scoring opportunities is a major weapon for Freehold Township.

“The transition game is big,” Sasso said. “We have some attackmen that can move the ball down low. If I win the face-off and get on the fast break it’s an easy goal. We know we can do it every time.”

Dunn’s emergence has provided a big boost early in the season, as well. A 5-foot tall freshman, Dunn plays much bigger and impressed the Freehold Township coaching staff with his skill and relentlessness.

“We went down to the freshman level and started looking, and we decided to bring him up,” said Patriots head coach Mike Ferrando. “He scored his first varsity goal 30 seconds into his first game, and we were like, ‘This guy’s a keeper’.”

The Patriots grabbed a 1-0 lead on an unassisted goal by Mitch Applegate at 3:48 of the first quarter, but Sherman tied the score 90 seconds later with an unassisted tally. The first half would play out much the same. Dunn’s first off a feed from Sasso made it 2-1 at 9:48 before Sasso fed Coppa for a man-up goal at 10:03, giving Freehold Township a 3-1 lead after the first quarter.

Sherman’s second unassisted goal four minutes into the second quarter cut the Patriots’ lead to 3-2, but they answered immediately to re-gain their two-goal lead. Directly off a clean face-off win, Sasso fed Dunn at the side of the crease, and the freshman ripped it home for a 4-2 lead six seconds after Sherman’s goal. Two minutes later, Sasso assisted on John Poole’s goal for a 5-2 lead.

The Rebels would strike back with two unanswered goals to made it a one-goal game at halftime. Unassisted goals by Matt Marsh and Ornstein at 8:15 and 10:39, respectively, kept Howell within striking distance.

Pace slowed considerably in the third quarter, but Freehold Township was able to increase its lead with extended possessions and great defensive work. Sasso scored his only goal, unassisted at 4:48, for a 6-4 lead, and Kevin Patten added an unassisted tally at 5:07 to make it 7-4. The lead was pushed to 9-4 midway through the fourth quarter on Coppa’s second goal and a man-down goal by Dunn on a pass from Sasso. Howell would get goals from Ornstein and Sherman in the final five minutes, but the Patriots had built a big enough lead for their sturdy defense to hold.

“Our defense made some switches (in the second half), and we wanted to slow it down and run our offense,” Sasso said. “Overall we did a great job on offense and defense. We were sound.”

“We’re very confident in our defense,” Ferrando said. “We feel it’s the backbone of the team right now.”

Defenseman Mike O’Brien had a team-high nine ground balls and helped shut down junior attackman Mark Buannic, who scored 24 goals last season and is the team’s second-leading returning scorer behind Sherman.

“Seventeen (Ornstein) and 50 (Buannic) were guys that scared us, and all our defenders did a great job,” Ferrando said.

Freehold Township is 3-0 and has scored 35 goals in three games despite being without two of its top offensive players. When O’Brien and Nunez return, its offense should be even better. The Patriots will need the added production with games against Christian Brothers Academy and Red Bank Catholic coming next week.

“Right now we’re a little different with them out of the lineup, but once they come back we’ll be sprinting again,” Ferrando said.


Box Score

Freehold Township 9, Howell 6

Freehold Township (3-0, 1-0) 3 2 2 2 - 9

Howell (2-1, 0-1)                    1 3 0 2 - 6

GOALS — H: Jake Sherman 3, Zach Ornstein 2, Matt Marsh; FT: Drew Dunn 3, Mike Coppa 2, Billy Sasso, Kevin Patten, Mitch Applegate, John Poole.

ASSISTS — FT: Billy Sasso 6.

SAVES — H: Pete Rush 10; FT: Chris Favale 11.

SHOTS — Freehold Township, 26-22.