NEPTUNE – A senior class of 14 players took the field for Freehold Township (15-4-4) in a Group IV semifinal on Tuesday night against Washington Township, and though a 2-1 Minutemen (24-1-1) victory cut short the Patriots’ run through the NJSIAA tournament, the legacy they leave behind is no less revered.
“I think their legacy will be a little bit clearer when I have time to really think about it, because I thought it was going to end with a Group IV state championship,” Patriots coach Todd Briggs said in the postgame. “But ending it with a sectional championship — only the fourth one in our program’s history, which goes back an awful long ways — it’s a huge way to go out.”
Briggs went on to discuss his seniors’ beginnings at Freehold Township, how they entered as a freshman class and proved to be a “huge driving force” in the team’s success from a young age, before cementing their place in the Patriots history books as juniors, and eventually went out with sectional championship hardware in their final season.
“Their legacy is that when the chips were down they were able to rise to a different level,” Briggs said. “Their legacy is that they’re winners. Period. Our record in their four years is the best it’s ever been in a four-year stretch, and that has everything to do with them.”
Briggs reminisced further about that initial season, and a collection of four freshmen in particular who ended the year as starters: Jake Kennis, Nick Facendo, Mark Fasano, and Mike Maltese.
The thought developed even more prominently by the fact that it was Maltese who, with 7:30 remaining in regulation, cut the Minutemen deficit in half when he fired a missile to the upper right corner for his second goal of the season.
“For Mike to do that tonight, even though we lost, it feels like that moment was meant to happen for him,” Briggs said. “Because four years ago, he was the fourth freshman we called up that became a starter that season. He’s had a tremendous work rate for four years, and it showed in that goal what kind of player he is and what kind of mental resolve he has. … It’s the key to his success as a player and a person.”
But what’s more, this group, these 14 seniors, and all they’ve helped this program accomplish, changed the landscape and culture of Patriots boys soccer, according to Briggs.
“It was a little bit of revolution in some ways when these guys came to this program. When I was a coach for the six years before they came in, we were a team reliant on our upperclassmen.”
“Then we had this tremendous class come in that had played club together for eight years. They had great chemistry and camaraderie. And I knew right away I had to get them into the top level of the program, so four years later we can be sitting here in a Group IV semifinal.”
Washington Township took a 1-0 advantage at 17:11 when the Minutemen drew a handball inside the box, setting up George Charalabidis for a penalty kick, which the senior midfielder buried in the bottom left corner for his eighth goal of the season.
Freehold Township answered with a rush of its own in the 20th minute, when a Nick Facendo cross was lobbed into the box for Chris Hoskins. The senior forward bumped a header toward the far post, but a flailing dive by Washington’s Matt Tini allowed the senior keeper to push the ball off the inside of the post and pounce on it as it spun on the goal line, for one of his 10 saves.
Washington’s first-half lead was pushed to two goals in the 32nd minute when Washington captain Ryan Loger touched the ball down inside Freehold Township territory, carried to the 20 and curled a rocket over the outstretched hand of leaping Patriots keeper Mike Christina — who stopped seven shots — and into the top right corner for his third of the season.
The Maltese tally cut the lead to 2-1 late, but the clock ran out on Freehold’s comeback bid, sending the Minutemen to the Group IV final on Sunday at 3 p.m. at Kean University.