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FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP – Through 40 minutes the field was certainly titled in Freehold Township’s favor, but with nothing to show for it outside of some decent looks, the Patriots knew their path to a sectional title rested on their ability to cash in when an opportunity presented itself. 

That chance came in the 47th minute, and senior Josh Hocheiser was sure to make it count. 

Hocheiser was fouled in the box early in the second half and converted the ensuing penalty kick, providing the only goal of the game as Freehold Township edged rival Howell, 1-0, to win the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 4 sectional championship on Thursday afternoon. 

“I was the one that got fouled and right away I knew I wanted to step up and be the one to win the game for my team,” Hocheiser said. “The feeling when the ball hit the back of the net was incredible.” 

“I can’t speak enough about the kid, I think he’s the most versatile player on our team,” said Freehold Township head coach Joshua Mehl. “He started as an outside right wing our Shore Conference championship team as a sophomore, and then, in my opinion, he was the best outside back in the Shore Conference last year. He’s basically a Swiss Army Knife for us. He’s played everywhere we’ve needed him this year. He’s gone out at left wing and just dominated all year. We actually said (Wednesday) that if we got a penalty, between him or Herman (senior leading scorer Herman Colbert), who’s taking it? Josh put his hand up right away.” 

The sectional title is Freehold Township’s first since 2015. The Patriots will host South Jersey Group 4 champion Toms River North in the NJSIAA Group 4 semifinals on Tuesday. It will be the third meeting between the teams this season with Toms River North holding a 1-0-1 lead. Toms River North played to a scoreless draw with Cherokee and advanced via a 4-3 win on penalties to claim its third straight sectional crown. 

Robert Badders/Townsquare Media NJ

The host Patriots had won the prior two meetings with Howell this season but the surging Rebels, into the final as the No. 13 seed, were rolling - winners of 10 of their last 11 - and eager for revenge. Freehold Township matched that intensity and owned the first half to the tune of a 12-3 advantage in attempted shots and an overwhelming 7-0 edge in corner kicks. But even with the majority of the play being contested in Howell’s defensive end it was still scoreless through 40 minutes.  

Freehold Township’s backs did a great job stifling most any brief advantage Howell gained throughout the game and the Patriots midfield helped keep the pressure up in the offensive end. Howell’s defense and goalie Charlie Scanlon were up to the task, however, to keep Freehold Township off the scoresheet during the run of play. 

“We obviously have a very detailed history with Howell; we’ve played them six times in the last two years so they know us and we know them,” Mehl said. “We knew they were going to come in here fired up so the mantra for us what that no matter what we’re going to stay the course. Eventually, it will go our way as long as we keep pressuring them.” 

There’s winning a sectional title, and then there’s winning a sectional title by beating arguably your biggest rival. Does that make it sweeter? 

“It definitely does,” Hocheiser said. “Since freshman year I always knew it could be us and them this year. They didn’t have the best start but I knew they were still a strong team.” 

“Beating a team three times is tough and we knew they would come out fired up,” Colbert said. “We had to give 100 percent on the field at all times to come out with the result we wanted. Even though they were the underdogs we always try to play with an underdog mentality. We played like it was our last game.” 

Two seasons ago, Freehold Township hoisted the Shore Conference Tournament trophy and last season put together an 11-4-1 record during the pandemic-altered season. The Patriots have been a Shore Conference heavyweight for a while but entered this season tasked with replacing over a dozen graduated seniors.  

“I felt like we didn’t get a lot of respect because we graduated 15 seniors last year and a lot of them were mainstays in the starting lineup for three or four years, but a lot of these kids were waiting in the wings for their moment," Mehl said. "Guys like Sean Keegan, Ryan Keegan, Logan Mullaney, Hunter Torre, Rich Lockhard, Giancarlo Pantano; those guys stepped up when they had their opportunity.” 

Freehold Township is now 17-3-1 and two games away from winning an overall Group 4 title. It is a battle-tested group, as well, having gone through the gauntlet that is the Shore Conference’s Class A North division. Their three losses are to teams who won sectional titles on Thursday – North 2, Group 4 champion Elizabeth, South Jersey Group 4 champion Toms River North, and Non-Public South A champion Christian Brothers Academy. 

Now they will get a third crack at a team that has stymied them in recent seasons. Toms River North is 2-0-2 against Freehold Township over the past three years, including a 0-0 draw during this regular season and a 4-1 win in the Shore Conference Tournament.  

“We lost to Elizabeth on a last-minute deflection, lost to CBA in the last minute of the game, and then the North loss,” Mehl said. “I think North was the only game where the other team clearly outplayed us. It ended up being a blessing in disguise because it showed us we have to be ready to go 80, 100, penalties, whatever it is. From that moment forward it left a really sour taste in our mouths and we wanted to show everyone the team we expected to be. It’s a testament to these kids and their work ethic.” 

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