Shore Conference champion Freehold Township boys’ soccer team now bids for state title

The Freehold Township boys' soccer team gets together for a picture while attending a Monmouth University soccer game on Aug. 30 in West Long Branch.

Early in the boys’ soccer season, Josh Mehl thought his Freehold Township High School team featured championship potential.

On Oct. 23 at Shore Regional High School, the Patriots proved their coach right.

In the Shore Conference Tournament championship game, Freehold Township beat Manasquan High School in penalty kicks, 4-3, claiming the program’s first conference title since 2014.

The score was knotted at 2-2 going into the shootout, but Freehold Township goalkeeper John Wilhelm made a pair of enormous saves against Manasquan penalty kicks. That opened the door for the Pats to win the shootout, which they did by scoring four times. Bennett Messinger, Zach Orrico, Evan Savino and Josh Leonetti all buried penalty kicks into the back of the net.

Orrico also scored both of Freehold Township’s goals during the run of play. Wilhelm made four stops before the shootout, including one on a penalty kick. So overall, he stopped three penalty kicks on the night.

The junior waited until this fall to start for the Patriots, even though he could have started much earlier. Wilhelm had to wait behind All-Shore Conference A North Division goalie Evan Nastarowicz, who graduated in the spring.

But once Wilhelm got his chance, his coach knew he would thrive. And Mehl was right about that too.

“John was good enough to start as a freshman,” Mehl said.

Wilhelm and the Patriots proved their coach right in one sense. They are a champion, and they are the best boys’ soccer team down the Shore.

But when he talked about his team’s potential early in the season, Mehl was not merely referring to the Shore Conference. With a lineup full of talent, the coach thought Freehold Township had a real shot to win the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 4 sectional tournament and even the Group 4 state tournament.

“Absolutely we can do it,” Mehl said back in September.

“Without a doubt,” he continued.

Freehold Township is the No. 4 seed in the Central Jersey, Group 4 sectional tournament and it will open the tourney with a first-round home game on Oct. 29 against the No. 13 seed, Long Branch High School. The group finals are scheduled to take place on Nov. 17 at Kean University in Union.

The Pats are entering the statewide postseason scorching hot, too. After starting 4-4 this year, Freehold Township has gone 10-1 over the past month.

During that stretch, it won a lot of the early games by multiple goals. But it also won three Shore Conference Tournament games by a single goal, and then the championship in a shootout.

Freehold Township is strong at every level of the field, from Wilhelm in goal to Leonetti on defense to Orrico in the midfield to Messinger up front. All the players around them are strong, too, and connected.

This talent and chemistry has made the Pats very strong in close games against good teams, a quality that’s essential to winning in the statewide postseason.

“These kids play the game and it’s innocent and fun,” Mehl said. “But at the end of the day they are also resilient.”