FREEHOLD TWP. - The lack of a definitive identity for Freehold Township wasn’t so much a crisis as it was an invitation to carve out a distinctive niche.

In recent years, labeling the Patriots was easy due to the endless assortment of adjectives fittingly applicable. They were quick, experienced and polished, a group that prided itself on a certain degree of underlying finesse which yielded a share of two consecutive NJSIAA Group 4 state titles and gave the program a foothold among the state’s elite.

To be measured against such high standards seemed a daunting weight for the current cast, one sparse on established veterans, rich on promising underclassmen and the epitome of a work in progress. Yet, over time, these Patriots have abided to a work ethic while redefining the brand and staying the course along a familiar path.

Freehold Township sophomore Ryann Leohner. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Freehold Township sophomore Ryann Leohner. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

“I would say we are just starting to get to the point where we know what our identity is,” said Freehold Township coach Dave Patterson. “The last couple of years, we really had some great individual talents who could create at a moment’s notice. We don’t have that this year. It took us a while to figure out…we tried a whole bunch of different things and we’re finally getting to the point where we understand what it takes for this team to be successful.”

Grit, hustle and physical muscle at both ends of the field have gradually come to the fore as some of the strengths best accentuated by Freehold Township, assets it emphasized throughout on Thursday as the third-seeded Patriots blanked sixth-seeded Brick, 2-0, in the quarterfinal round of the Shore Conference Tournament.

The win propelled the Patriots (11-3-1) into the SCT semifinals for a fourth straight season and left no doubt that no matter the composition of its roster, one thing has remained intact – they are still a bona fide contender for the crown.

“It’s a really different team from last year,” noted senior central defender Jessica Judge. “It’s been challenging. We didn’t know what we were going to get, but over the last few games, it’s started to come together.”

No sequence paid better testament to the bond and style the Patriots have forged than the one Judge initiated through a blinding counterattack in the seventh minute. Collecting a ball in the defensive third, she maneuvered out of danger before finding junior midfielder Anna Priborkina, who deftly feathered a through pass on the Township side of midfield in the direction of Ryann Leohner. The sophomore striker punctuated the seamless transition, tracking the 30-yard feed and placing a right-footed touch from the top of the 18 inside the left corner for a sudden 1-0 advantage.

The strike was the eighth of the campaign for Leohner, a stark contrast playing up top for Freehold Township. Counted upon to address the void left in the final third by ’18 graduates Jada and Jasmine Colbert, the powerful striker has embraced her penchant for running through defenders as opposed to the twins’ signature ability to elude obstacles.

“I use my physicality and size to push my way past people,” said Leohner, who has become a target teammates seek to explore. “I can’t be Jada or Jasmine. I have to be my own person and use what I’ve got to my advantage.”

Another advantage playing in Freehold Township’s favor is staunch defense. Judge anchored a rigid backline and senior keeper Alessia LaRosa stopped three shots as the Patriots recorded their fourth straight shutout and eighth overall.

“There was a perception we wouldn’t be as good as we’d been in previous years,” Priborkina said. “That motivated us to get back here.”

Priborkina sealed the outcome in the 74th minute. Junior outside midfielder Taylor Dove squeezed between a pair of Brick defenders to knock a pass that Priborkina one-touched off the left post. The bid carried enough top spin to glance off the woodwork before settling into the opposite corner, widening the gap to 2-0.

“Where it used to be finding Jada and Jasmine’s feet and let’s go, now we have to combine three or four passes, get those runs on the outside and put balls into the box,” shared Patterson of the Patriots’ redesigned offensive approach. “It takes more effort, a little more physicality and a lot more desire. The fact that we’re back in the semis is satisfying. I hope the girls feel that way because I certainly do.”

Brick (12-4-1)                     0 0 --- 0
Freehold Twp. (11-3-1)      1 1 --- 2

Goals: Leohner (Priborkina) 7th; Priborkina (Dove) 74th.

Saves: Molly Tully, Brick 2. Alessia LaRosa, Freehold Twp. 3.

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