NEPTUNE -- For a team playing in uncharted territory, Freehold Township has the poise of a program used to playing for state championships. After another historic victory, that's exactly what the Patriots will be doing on Saturday night.

Rutgers-bound senior midfielder Nicole Whitley scored one of the biggest goals in program history on Tuesday night at Neptune's Memorial Field, blasting a left-footed shot from 20 yards out through Shawnee's defense and into the net with 13 minutes left in regulation. Her goal was the only tally the surging Patriots needed to top the Renegades, 1-0, and reach the NJSIAA Group IV championship game for the first time in program history.

"I knew from the first game of the season this was the best Freehold Township team in history," Whitley said.

After winning the first sectional title in program history, the Patriots (20-4-1) will try to finish the job and make history with an overall Group IV title. They task will be difficult at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday at Kean University, where Freehold Township will play undefeated Ridge (23-0), which is ranked No. 2 in New Jersey. Ridge clipped Montclair 1-0 in double overtime on Tuesday.

Led by the play of its own Rutgers-bound midfielder, senior Alexis Palladino, Shawnee controlled much of the play in the first half. The Renegades (20-3-2) held a 6-1 shots advantage at one point before the Patriots put together a solid stretch late in the first half.

"We've said all season we are a team that comes out strong in the second half," Whitley said. "The first half we kind of had a slow rhythm and they outplayed us a bit. In the second half, we knew we'd been there before. We've been down by two goals. Been tied. We knew we could do this."

While Shawnee certainly possessed the ball more over the first 40 minutes, Freehold Township's defense kept the Renegades' scoring chances to shots 20-25 yards out. And on the few occasions they did get a quality chance, Patriots goalkeeper Kaela Chadziutko was there to turn them aside. She was tested early with a high shot she stopped by punching the ball up and over the crossbar on a high shot. Later she thwarted a free kick by Christian Corbi in the 26th minute.

One of the issues for Freehold Township was giving Palladino and Shawnee too much room to operate. That strategy shifted in the second half with more on-the-ball pressure from Whitley, senior Lacey Powell and sophomore Jada Colbert, and the result was a less-effective and seemingly frustrated Palladino.

"She's a great player, but maybe we surprised them a little in that we could play a kind of soccer the didn't think we could," said Freehold Township head coach Dave Patterson.  "They got a little frustrated we were pressuring and turning them over, and that got things going."

A strong finish to the first half carried over to the second half, where a different Patriots team emerged. From the start, Freehold Township controlled play over the final 40 minutes, erasing its shots disadvantage rather quickly. The Patriots put 10 shots toward the Shawnee net in the second half, and after stopping six shots in the first half, Chadziutko had to stop just two shots after the break.

"The mantra at halftime was that we held them," Patterson said. "We took their best shot and we were still standing. It wasn't until we really had momentum going in the second half that we switched Jada Colbert to outside mid(fielder), and her speed combined with her sister Jasmine's up top opened things more. We were finding Whitley a lot better in the midfield and she was finding space she wasn't finding in the first half."

Freehold Township appeared on the verge of a goal after generating great chances in the second half. A header by Whitley off a free kick was stopped by Shawnee goalie Brianna Davis, and she had another blast zip just wide of the right post. Later, a shot by Kayla West clanged off the post.

"A lot of them, I thought that was our chance," Patterson said. "Even though we were playing so well, we were kind of worried about their counterattack." Playing against the speed Shawnee had we knew that could happen at any point, but we just kept fighting. Nicole is a world-class player and she found a way in the box there."

The dominant player over the final 40 minutes, Whitley finally broke through for the Patriots in the 67th minute. The senior All-American corralled a loose ball just outside the 18-yard line before turning and ripping a left-footed shot that beat Davis to the upper-left corner of the net.

The Patriots celebrated, then celebrated some more 13 minutes later after continuing what has been a magical postseason run. Freehold Township had a pair of losses to rival Howell in the regular season, and also dropped a 1-0 contest to the Pennington School. A run to the Shore Conference Tournament final seemed to get the talented group in gear, and the rest is literally history.

"Certainly at the beginning of the season we saw glimpses here and there that showed we have the potential," Patterson said. "But something clicked when we got to the postseason. We had a really tough game against RBC, but dug deep and found a way. From then forward the girls have raised their level of play to the point where we know we can play with anybody."

The Patriots will need that kind of mindset when they take on Ridge, which is ranked No. 8 in the nation in the latest USA Today/NSCAA Fab 50.

"Ridge is an incredible program with great history, but we know if we come to play we have a shot," Patterson said.


Box Score

NJSIAA Group IV semifinals

At Neptune

Freehold Township 1, Shawnee 0

Freehold Twp. (20-4-1) 0 1 - 1

Shawnee (20-3-2)        0 0 - 0

GOALS - FT: Nicole Whitley, 67'

SAVES - FT: Kaela Chadziutko, 8; S: Brianna Davis, 10.

SHOTS: Freehold Township, 15-10.