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UNION -- At some point during the Freehold Township girls soccer team's 2022 redemption tour, the Patriots were going to have to return to the scene that brought about the need for redemption in the first place.

Alumni Stadium at Kean University was the site of the most gut-wrenching result the players on the 2021 ever had to face. On Sunday at the NJSIAA Group IV championship game against undefeated Ridgewood, the 2022 team -- most of them back from last year -- made Kean the site of its greatest triumph.

Junior Ainsley Moy scored in the sixth minute and the Patriots kept Ridgewood out of the goal for the remainder of the game to complete their winding journey to an Group IV championship with a 1-0 victory in the title game.

Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com
Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com

The title is the first outright championship for the Freehold Township girls soccer program and the second overall to go with a Group IV co-championship in 2015.

"I don't even know how to feel right now," said Kayla Wong, one of two seniors on the Patriots, along with center back Gabby Koluch. "I'm so overjoyed and happy that our season was as perfect as it could have been. At this point, I'm not even sad that it's my last game because this game was unforgettable. I'm so glad we could end it with a win."

"It's been amazing," Moy said. "Sharing every single game with this team, we just put everything we've got on that field. It's a hundred percent every single game and it's just been so amazing to finally get to everything we have been working for all season."

Sunday's victory came just shy of a year after losing to Westfield, 1-0, in stunning fashion, with the Blue Devils scoring the winning goal with eight seconds left on a shot that Freehold Township goalkeeper Ashley Moore secured, but allowed to cross the end line when she fell backward.

"I'm so happy for the girls because of how much they put into what they do out here," Freehold Township coach Dave Patterson said. "I know that they are proud of wearing the 'FT' logo on their jersey everyday and after last year and the heartbreaking loss, they circled this date. All season long, they were focused on this date, but they didn't let anything else slip away throughout the season. They rose to the occasion each and every single time out there."

Moore was among the redemption stories this season, as the sophomore keeper closed out her 17th shutout of the season. Only three of Ridgewood's shots were on frame and Moore handled all of them, including a free kick by Kat Slott that Moore  off the deflected as it struck the crossbar in the 64th minute.

"Ever since summer, we have had one word our mind and it was redemption," Wong said. "I'm just really proud our team was able to follow that through. Every game, we came in with the same mentality and I'm glad we were able to make it all the way here and win."

"Personally, coming on this field today after last year's loss was super motivating," Koluch said. "It made me want to have the feeling of winning an overall state championship, and I think the team felt that as well. Even the players that weren't here last year understood that was our goal and to help us get back here."

Moy's goal was part of a fast start for Freehold Township, which unleashed five shots in the first eight minutes, including three on goal and one off the crossbar. Junior Hailey Santiago got a clean look inside the six-yard box after a through-ball from sophomore Gaby Parker, but Ridgewood keeper Katie Bisgrove made a quick-reflex save in the fourth minute. A minute later, Koluch nicked the crossbar with a 32-yard shot.

"We know the first five minutes of the game is super important just to gain our momentum and gain control," Moy said. "We wanted to connect our passes and we tried to play our game the entire game. we had to pack it in to the box more than we probably should have, but it was important to come out strong in each half."

Those chances all led up to the goal, which started with junior Shea Jackson hitting Howard with a pass in stride. Howard then made her own perfect pass, squaring the ball over to Moy. The junior midfielder had openings to get the ball to either Parker or Santiago, but she also saw some daylight at the far left corner of the goal and ripped a low shot that hit the mark 5:20 into the match.

"Dani made great run up the width, crossed it in and I got an opportunity to shoot," Moy said. "We have to finish every single chance we get out there."

After the goal, Freehold Township found itself defending more often than not, with Ridgewood putting serious pressure on the Patriots defense in the last 10 minutes of the first half and the middle 20 minutes of the second.

Freehold Township's dominant stretches came during the first 10 minutes of each half and after withstanding another heavy push from the Maroons during the middle of the second half, the Patriots regained control of the game over the final 10.

The Patriots could not convert on their chances to add an insurance goal, but the defense, led by Koluch and with the help of junior Grace Miraglia and sophomores Chloe Walters and Sophie Tonino, closed down the space in the back and sealed the game.

"Our biggest thing in the back was communication: making sure every player was marked and making sure no runners got through," Koluch said. "Defensively, the midfield did their job, the backs did the job and ultimately, we ended up with a shutout, which was our goal."

"(Ridgewood) played great," Moy said. "They had a lot of momentum for a lot of the game and I think our back line did a great job of holding them. We knew we had to work hard to hold the lead, because we know how easy it is to come back from one goal (deficit)."

Koluch has been a force in the back for Freehold Township since she shifted to center back early in the season from her previous spot at defensive center midfield. On Sunday, the Villanova commit was tested by Slott and juniors Isabella Winn and Jessica Kaye -- all fast, athletic attacking players on the Maroons side.

"We knew they were going to be fast," Wong said. "We knew they were going to play soccer: they were going to put it down an pass it. We knew we had to be quicker and always be on our toes and be winning to put our body in front of the ball."

Freehold Township's march to the Group IV championship began with the loss to Westfield in a showdown of unbeaten teams, the second straight year in which two teams without a loss to a New Jersey opponent played in the Group IV final. Freehold Township's only loss this season was to Archbishop Spalding of Maryland.

Freehold Twp. senior Kayla Wong. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Freehold Twp. senior Kayla Wong. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)

On the way to a 21-0 in-state record, the Patriots encountered their most pressing challenge before the season. Junior Cassidy Corcione -- the reigning state Player of the Year and Clemson commit -- suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the spring, leaving the Patriots with a significant hole in the lineup that they were not expecting to fill in 2022.

"It was a huge loss, obviously," Wong said of Corcione. "She was such a key player last year, but we knew that we still had really key players and other good players ready to step up. Everyone worked hard for each other and we were able to fill what Cass left."

The Patriots were undeterred from the start, with Koluch leading a dominant defense, Moore taking a step forward as the team's goalkeeper, Howard emerging as a standout midfielder along with Division I teammates Wong and Moy, and Parker (15 goals) and Santiago (23) continuing to score goals at a rapid clip up top.

Freehold Twp. celebrates the first-half goal by Ainsley Moy. Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com
Freehold Twp. celebrates the first-half goal by Ainsley Moy. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)

"We lost some key players from last year, but I think we matured as a team," Wong said. "We were in this situation last year and we were able to use that experience from this game and outplay (Ridgewood) because of that experience. That gave us our edge all season, especially today."

During the course of the season, the Patriots trailed only three times: early on in the 2-1 loss to Spalding; for a matter of minutes in the first half of a 5-1 win over Toms River South; and for nearly 30 minutes of a come-from-behind, 2-1, overtime win over Manalapan in the Central Jersey Group IV championship.

While there was no deficit to overcome on Sunday and the game-winning goal came early, Freehold Township still had to stare down an undefeated team that was desperate for a goal and keep them quiet. Where last year's group came up eight seconds short of overtime, this year's team delivered through the final horn.

"Ridgewood was a terrifically-talented team and they put pressure on us in both halves," Patterson said. "We knew what we had to do. Nothing was going to be given to us, nothing was easy and we were going to have to face the pressure. Just the way that everyone -- our midfielders, our keeper, our defenders -- dug deep and found a way, as exhausted as they were, to get the job done just makes it that much sweeter."

Gabby Koluch (with trophy) and her teammates celebrate with the championship trophy. Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com
Gabby Koluch (with trophy) and her teammates celebrate with the championship trophy. Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com

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